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Breivik is Not "Insane" but a Logical Product of Racist Social Relations

[I'm taking a brief break from the Combat Liberalism series to post this, but rest assured!  I shall return to the third and final part of that series in the next post.]

In his essay Racism and Culture, Frantz Fanon remarked that, in societies where racism has become incorporated into the social relations of the mode of production, there is a tendency amongst the liberal members of these societies to regard racism "as a mental quirk, as a psychological flaw."  Rather than grasp the fact that unapologetic racists in a culture where racist relations have become institutionalized––implicit norms rather than explicit attributes that we would historically understand as virulently racist––are simply acting according to structural logic, we would rather dismiss them as aberrant.  "If in England, in Belgium, or in France, despite the democratic principles affirmed by these respective nations," Fanon wrote, "there are still racists, it is these racists who, in opposition to the country as a whole, are logically consistent… The racist in a culture with racism is therefore normal.  He has achieved a perfect harmony of economic relations and ideology."

With this insight in mind, one cannot help but find recent developments in the Anders Behring Breivik trial extremely interesting.  Breivik was an unapologetic racist who, believing that Muslim immigrants were polluting the white European composition of his country, decided to murder people who he saw as complicit in this supposed pollution.  Specifically, because the white supremacist discourse amongst hard right and neo-nazi parties in Europe is now adopting a pro-Zionist and Islamophobic ideology,  Breivik targeted pro-Palestinian activists.

From the very beginning, Breivik was described as psychotic and insane––a lone gunman suffering from some sort of unspecified mental illness.  His actions were psychologized and any attempt to connect them with structural racism was discouraged.  And now, after his arrest and midway through his trial, an army of "expert" psychologists and psychiatrists are being mobilized to prove that Breivik suffers from mental illness.  Just look at the man's wikipedia entry!  Now we are being told that he is psychotic, or schizophrenic, or delusional, or a product of abuse, or a combination of all of these categories.  And we must ask why there is such a frenzy to produce mental health experts to explain away his ideology according to notoriously problematic, and often pseudo-scientific, categories of psychologization.  Here again the ruling classes are desperate to define virulent expressions of racism, which would have been quite normal and acceptable thirty or forty years ago at the centres of capitalism, as "mental quirks" and "psychological flaws."

Indeed, the fact that Breivik-style racism was acceptable and normal only decades ago in the so-called "civilized" nations should make us wonder at these psychological classifications.  It is not as if his murderous rampage was any worse than KKK lynchings which were the fun and games of innumerable white settlers in the 1960s in a society that went out of its way to protect the lynchers rather than the victims of lynching.  Are we expected to believe that everyone who accepted the mainstream ideology of those societies in the 1960s was mentally ill but somehow got better because of the Civil Rights Movement?  Are we even expected to believe that Breivik is some antiquated throwback to a past the "civilized" centres of capitalism have overcome?

And even if he does suffer from some sort of mental illness what does this even matter?  It is not insignificant that the most violent individuals categorized as "psychotic" tend to target women, racialized minorities, queer persons, and other oppressed groups.  And how many people who might otherwise be given the psychological category of "mentally ill" are able to function in imperialist armies or in the ranks of the police?  Social relations cut into this psychologization at various points, even though we pretend that this is not the case.

In the case of Breivik, however, the small army of experts that has been mobilized to ascribe his behaviour to some sort of mental quirk and history of insanity must be questioned.  We must ask why they were mobilized in the first place.  The answer is clear because these experts are the answer to the question that was raised from the very moment of Breivik's apprehension.  That is, as aforementioned, from the beginning there was a discourse about Breivik being mentally ill; the experts are only there to give some authoritative weight to this discourse.  Their existence is ad hoc, an utter fallacy, because the answer to the question "is this racist a madman?" was decided ahead of time.  All that was needed was a group of people willing to endorse this answer and, because psychological experts can pass as scientists even though psychology is as scientific as phrenology (seriously, read an issue of Psychology Today), the experts were waiting to say whatever the courts wanted them to say.

So why would Breivik's society, and European society at large, want to dismiss the Breiviks of the world as lone psychopaths and go out of their way to prove psychosis?  Because the societies at the centres of capitalism are immeasurably sick and do not want to admit that they are racist.  The Breiviks are embarrassing because they are moments that reveal structural hypocrisy.  For if you keep creating laws, television programs, "common sense" behaviours that target a certain group of people––exclude them, deport them, isolate them, victimize them, vulnerabilize them––then you are bound to produce the odd Breivik who doesn't quite figure out that it's more "civilized" to strangle these people out of society through subtle legal mechanisms, and let them die quietly––through poverty and/or criminalization––than to just take a gun and shoot them.  All Breivik did was violate the rules of racist sportsmanship.  He was that boor who showed up, uninvited, at a bourgeois party, got drunk, and decided to say what everyone was too polite to admit what they were actually thinking and ended up getting kicked out before he could ruin the party for everyone else.

Interestingly enough, because Breivik's racism is such that he is not a hypocrite––that he can normally function in a racist society without contradiction––he is well aware, in a strange and distorted manner, of the bullshit psychologization.  Now he is angry that he is being classified as "insane" because, in his mind––which is logically consistent with the racist society that produced him––he is completely sane.  And he is sane according to social norms because the social norms of the society that produced him are utterly racist––he is "normal… achieved a perfect harmony of economic relations and ideology."  But shocked by the spectacular nature of his crimes, the public just can't seem to grasp that they are supporting a politics of which his are the extreme logical variant with all of the immigration laws and Islamophobic ideology to which they ascribe.

So in some ways it seems quite odd that Breivik is the one who has to say that nobody would have questioned his sanity if he was, in his words, a "bearded jihadist"––the supposed enemy threatening his white and "civilized" state.  And in this he is correct: supposed Muslim "fanatics" are only crazy insofar as they're Muslim and their entire culture is classified as "insane"; but when a "terrorist" is caught and tried in an imperialist court, the army of psychological experts called to explain away Breivik's massacre are nowhere to be found.  Breivik correctly pointed out that if he was "an Islamic terrorist no one would have questioned his mental state" because he is an honest racist who hasn't realized that racism has become a dishonest game with "civilized" codes of conduct.

"They are trying to delegitimize everything I stand for," Breivik complained, unaware of the true lucidity of this comment.  Yes, they are trying to delegitimize everything Breivik openly stands for because they are trying to delegitimize the charge that they are the reason Breivik, and everyone like Breivik, exists in the first place.

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  1. Nice insight.

    "Tolerance" in white supremacist and imperialist discourse (or just European discourse...) means being tolerant of fictional boogeymen in the Muslim world, their supposedly brutal civilization and their natural support for terror. This discourse accepts the idea that Muslims, and brown people in general, are lesser people, and that Europe is a bastion of great civilization -- everything that the Muslim world is not. When a Muslim commits desperate acts of terror, his act is considered a product of his backwards civilization.

    When the white man commits "out of the norm" acts of armed, white supremacist terror, and not the normalized kind such as imperialist genocide and occupation, he is labelled as a "madman", "psychotic", etc. This post of yours could just as well apply to the torturers in Abu Ghraib, or the child butchers in Afghanistan. In reality, nothing about Breivik is out of the norm, he is not a madman. He is a product of white Europe.

    Europe is trying to wash her hands again. Civility and tolerance is supposed to be the norm in white Europe -- he was a "lone wolf", nothing about him was normal, etc. This discourse needs to be smashed, Europe needs to be exposed.

    1. Hey oskar, thanks for the comments. When you wrote: "[w]hen a Muslim commits desperate acts of terror, his act is considered a product of his backwards civilization… [w]hen the white man commits *out of the norm* acts of armed, white supremacist terror, and not the normalized kind such as imperialist genocide and occupation, he is labelled as a "madman", "psychotic", etc." I was reminded of my essay on "Martyrs" where I talk about something akin to that discourse and how reactionary horror films are premised on this bullshit distinction. Should link it somewhere above...


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