On February 18, we kick off the new year with the anarchist formerly known as Prince. Peter Kropotkin was “the most systematic and profound anarchist thinker of the nineteenth century,” according to Peter Marshall.1 Geographer, theorist, and reluctant aristocrat, Kropotkin was one of the first truly international celebrities—known to the European and American publics as a brilliant scientist who just happened to hold some unconventional political views. At the time of his death, the Royal Geographic Society published an obituary that referenced Kropotkin’s politics only “to express regret that his absorption in [anarchism] seriously diminished the services which otherwise he might have rendered to Geography.”2 Notwithstanding such objections, Kropotkin’s anarchist vision is rooted in his scientism insofar as he understood his politics as directly related to his commitment to rational empiricism. How does one go about creating a society based on the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?
In the wake of the brutal assault upon the journalists at Charlie Hebdo we should be reflecting, not as François Hollande and other world leaders advise us to, on the attack on free speech, but on two things: First, which spaces and kinds of resistance have been foreclosed to a generation of young working class men and women facing a post 9/11 world of poverty, unemployment and repeated attacks of the West upon predominantly Muslim countries; and: Second, how the attack on Charlie Hebdo by a handful of criminals is being used to serve an already existing imperial narrative of the Enlightened West vs. the ‘Barbaric’ Muslim.
The concrete consequences of this narrative are born by innocent Muslims and people of color in the working class districts of Paris, Delhi and Gaza alike.”
There is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday. Some people published some cartoons, and some other people killed them for it. Words and pictures can be beautiful or vile, pleasing or enraging, inspiring or offensive; but they exist on a different plane from physical violence, whether you want to call that plane spirit or imagination or culture, and to meet them with violence is an offense against the spirit and imagination and culture that distinguish humans. Nothing mitigates this monstrosity. There will be time to analyze why the killers did it, time to parse their backgrounds, their ideologies, their beliefs, time for sociologists and psychologists to add to understanding. There will be explanations, and the explanations will be important, but explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Words don’t kill, they must not be met by killing, and they will not make the killers’ culpability go away.
To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not…