Opinion: Violence, Information and the Radicalisation of the Last Men

Between Friedrich Nietzsche’s despair at the Last Men (1961) who revere nothing and who have fallen into nihilism, and Francis Fukuyama’s crass celebration that the Last Men’s wants have been satisfied under the liberal democratic settlement (1992) – between in short, cynicism and complacency – there is a lesson. How will the government respond to a British citizen apparently beheading two American journalists in Islamic State (IS) propaganda videos? What is it that draws British citizens to fight in Syria and Iraq for organisations like IS? What is radicalisation and how does it occur?

The Caliphate constitutes a powerful and seductive imaginary for some Muslims in Britain and elsewhere. However, the reasons British men and women are travelling to Syria and Iraq to be part of it are complex, and its powers of attraction may not necessarily be specifically religious – indeed, the act of extreme violence is itself an attractor. I do not mean that watching an IS propaganda video of a violent act will radicalise an individual. However, for individuals – Muslim or otherwise – who see themselves as living as Nietzsche’s Last Men, such extreme acts pose the possibility of an authenticity that, or so they suppose, has been denied them. In the very contrariness of extreme violence to ordinary codes of the good and the decent, the idea of doing something so appalling implies a mind so sure of itself – a conviction so secure – that the narcissistic individuals who are drawn to it feel nothing for the victim and notice only what they see as the terrible emptiness of their own existence.  

But this is not only a psychological problem: it is a problem of our society – a society where, when a politician speaks, no one believes what she says because it is known in advance that politicians long ago sacrificed conviction to calculation. The same goes for the PR gurus, consultants, opinion-makers, think-tank experts and pundits. The information is already tainted by the lobby that paid for it. The sheer excrescence of information has left this society in a permanent state of anxiety. But the possibility of knowing what one thinks and of meaning what one says – of possessing the certitude and inner strength to cut off a man’s head with all the visceral horror that such an act requires? In a world as insane as our world is – in a world of information overload and of the pervasive suspicion that words do not mean what they seem – the beheading of a journalist makes a perverse sense.

Fukuyama, F. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Nietzsche, F. 1961. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One. (trans). R. J.Hollingdale. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Dr Paul-Francois Tremlett