Neo-Liberalism, Democracy and Lone Wolf Terror

Tori Holliday

In the wake of Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist rampage in Norway on 22 July 2011, lone wolf terrorism has catapulted to the top of the international relations and security studies agenda, as scholars attempt to reformulate questions and perspectives which address the rise of lone wolf terrorism in the Internet Age. The concept of a ‘lone wolf’ is highly contested amongst scholars and there remains not a singular definition, however, for the purpose of this essay, I will adopt the definition proposed by Feldman which claims that lone wolf terrorism is “self-directed political or religious violence undertaken…by individuals—typically perceived by its adherents to be an act of asymmetrical, propagandistic warfare—which derives from a variable amount of external influence and context.’’

Adopting a mimetic approach to lone wolf terrorism, I argue that the lone wolf terrorist ‘threat’ is inextricably linked to the mimetic relationship between liberal democracy and its citizens; globalization has thus manifested a form of resentment upon its constituents in such a way that violence becomes paradoxical, two-fold, and inevitable. Terrorism thus arises as a product of liberal democracy, and the violence that ensues serves to confront liberal democracy with its own failings. Moreover, I argue that, by adopting a mimetic understanding of this paradox, scholarship can begin to reformulate preventative solutions. In the first section of my essay I will introduce Girardian mimetic theory and outline the main elements of conflictual violence. I will deconstruct multicultural democratic society and attempt to identify the ways in which it has become an object of mimetic desire. Following from this analysis, I then examine the relationship between liberal democracy’s mimetic desire and the individual, and argue that the moral economy constructs the foundations of a lone wolf. In the second section of this essay, I will focus on lone wolf terrorisms’ modus operandi and the recent upsurge in internet usage to demonstrate the paradoxical nature of counter-terrorism operations and democratic integrity.  In the final component of my essay, I argue that a mimetic analysis of liberal democracy and lone wolf terrorism facilitates the redefining of ‘threat’ in terrorism discourse, and can potentially re-conceptualize mitigation and preventative measures.

 For Reńe Girard, human culture and society are interconnected with conflictual violence and war. This intimate relationship forms the basis for the theory of mimetic rivalry and desire, where mimesis is defined as “imitation”, a shadow, a triangular relationship between the desires of two actors and the value of an object. The concept of human desire is not defined by a direct desire for a particular object, thing or place; rather it is defined by the need to imitate the object.  In this sense, human rivalry is considered social and mimetic in nature, in that it forms a triangular relationship: in the context of terrorism, this is can be seen through the existence of victims, targets and perpetrators. As the experience of rivalry intensifies, the object is deemed irrelevant and the process of mimesis of antagonism begins to take shape. For Girard, this process is a critical shift for both rivals as they begin to recognize that they are no longer divided by the object they once desired. Instead they become homogenous and it is at this point of the mimetic conflict where both actors will claim their objectives are the same, and that their ideologies are fueled by the same values. Girard’s mimetic philosophy provides a theoretical understanding of desire and rivalry within a human context, highlighting the inevitable potential for paroxysmal conflict.

Expanding upon Girard’s theory, late modernity, at a time of rampant neoliberalism, is a socio-political entity that produces a globalized form of resentment on the basis of mimetic desire and rivalry. At the centre of this globalized resentment lies the mimetic desire for identity, the ability to define oneself against an Other for the purpose of being another. A mimetic analysis of late modernity emphasises the ways in which its economic, political and cultural discourse engenders conflict and violence. Neoliberalism’s promotion of freedom, equality and individualistic values has paradoxically manifested itself through a doctrine of free market economics where competition and the consolidation of wealth formulate the basis of conflict and globalized resentment. The mimetic crisis transcends cultural, racial, and religious differences, and instead creates an inescapable and impossible competition of imitation which necessitates the emotions of failure and disaffection. It is at this point where late modernity’s triumphant values of individualism, equality and freedom collide with free market values of competition and expansion to generate a threat to democratic society. The failure that is associated with this democratic mimetic rivalry can be understood through the ways in which individuals, specifically lone wolf terrorists, impute liability and blame, contain their embarrassment and indignity, and project their resentment onto society. Thus, the complex nature of mimetic rivalry and desire that has manifested from late modernity, submerges constituents of liberal democracies into a form of globalized resentment; a paradox which explains the creation of a lone wolf terrorist and the motives behind their acts of violence.

An individual’s failure to assimilate and engage with multicultural dimensions of liberal democratic society, subsequently fosters a highly resentful relationship towards global politics. As liberal democratic societies individualise the political arena, their monopoly over the legitimate use of violence is deconstructed, and in its place, constituents of the state begin to synthesise their ubiquitous resentment and mimetic frustrations with contemporary forms of violence.  This personal resentment is reverberated through the 16-year anti-technology campaign established by Ted Kaczynski, a lone wolf known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski’s bombing campaigns, accompanied by a 35,000-word manifesto, emphasise the ways in which social isolation and a loss of identity transform into a violent pattern of resentment. A lone wolf’s obsessive repulsion for late modernity can also be determined by their social context: lenient gun laws, technological innovation, parental pressure, violence promoted within the media, lack of social connections, economic hardship amongst minority groups, negative classroom environments, and the diagnosis of an individual’s psychopathology. Scholars Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko recently established a two-pyramid model that determines the profile of a lone wolf on the basis of opinion and action. Their research indicates that lone wolf terrorists can be categorized into two potential profiles: the first being disconnected-disordered where individuals possess mental health issues and hold a sense of social exclusion. The second profile – caring-consistency, relates to lone wolves such as Zasulich, Waagner and al-Balawi, where these individuals possessed strong social ties, no history of psychological illness, and a perceived obligation to reduce the suffering of others. Therefore, lone wolf attacks formulate an idiosyncratic thread, where individual resentments are entrenched within contemporary global political narratives. Similar to violence, resentment is both creative and destructive in nature, a binarism of function and dysfunction. In this sense, a lone wolf’s mimetic desires and resentment become parallel to democratic progress, a countermovement emerging from its very failures.

The mimetic rivalry between the individual and the democratic state increases as the lone wolf devises or conducts an act of terror upon society’s constituents. To carry out their resentful acts of violence, lone wolf terrorists exploit the democratic rights and freedoms granted to them, whilst challenging the integrity of liberal democracy. The lone wolf’s iniquitous use of liberal democratic laws thus presents a dualistic challenge for the state: Western democratic society’s obligation to protect and offer security to its citizens is contradicted by the necessity to restrict its citizen’s rights as a means of safe-guarding its national security. Furthermore, security scholar Jason-Leigh Striegher, argues that lone wolf terrorists can utilise and manipulate legal systems, particularly court trials, as a platform for their cause. The expectation for governments and media outlets to remain transparent whilst dealing with the threat of a lone wolf, illustrates the difficulties counter-terrorism agencies face when implementing policy. The mimetic desire and rivalry paradox which underlies the relationship between lone wolf terrorists and democratic society is thus submerged into a double-bind of terrorism and counter-terrorism operations. The American Civil Liberties Union’s criticism of the lone wolf amendment of the 2004 USA Patriot Act, demonstrates the potential concerns this double-bind presents to liberal society. A constituent’s democratic civil liberties are eroded under the USA Patriot Act, as it fails to incorporate civil liberty and privacy safeguards. Liberal democratic states adopt measures which enable counter-terrorist agencies to practice invasive surveillance, interrogation, torture, secret arrest and potentially execution. The state’s intention to uphold democratic values is ironically violated by the legal liminalities and physical restraints they place upon citizens. Thus, Girardian theory’s mimetic antagonism is exemplified by counter-terrorist initiatives of liberal democracies; although the lone wolf’s modus operatus destroys the symbols of democracy, it is the faithlessness of the state that destroys democracy.

Due to the pre-eminent nature of the internet, the double-bind associated with terrorism and counter-terrorism operations is reinforced by the mimetic processes of re-differentiation and de-differentiation. In contemporary times, the internet has facilitated the propagation of lone wolf propagandistic rhetoric, subsequently rendering media outlets as a weapon of choice for radicalisation. As a result of globalisation, the internet has created new opportunities for individuals to share their radical opinions, ideologies and intentions on an online community of resentment. The incorporation of technology into lone wolf operations poses an even greater threat to liberal democratic societies, as counter-terrorism efforts risk violating constituent’s privacy and civil liberties. Communications theorist, Bryan Taylor, highlights the effects liberal democratic counter-terrorism operations place upon citizens, when he asserts, “the citizens of counterterror regimes must simultaneously bear the burden of official suspicion, and officially delegated responsibility to redeem that suspicion through their assimilation of neoliberal scripts.” This phenomenon is elucidated through the politics of the media, where a mimetic dichotomy of de- and re-differentiation emerges: de-differentiation is the imitation of the actuality of reality, whereas re-differentiation is the unveiling and deconstruction of this replication. This form of mimesis is embodied through Anders Breivik’s lone wolf attacks in Norway, where he utilized social media platforms to promote his 1,500-page anti-multiculturalism manifesto and engage supporters through YouTube videos. Due to the absences in acts of terror in Norway prior 2011, Breivik’s use of the internet as a form re-differentiation, consequently rendered Norway’s de-differentiated counter-terrorism narrative obsolete. Nevertheless, not only does a mimetic rivalry manifest a globalized resentment between liberal democracies and its constituents, but it also establishes a mimetic dichotomy of de- and re-differentiation, where an actor attempts to seize control over the representation of a narrative

Reflecting upon the relationship between lone wolf terrorists and globalized resentment, liberal democratic society must adopt a mimetic approach which attempts to demystify the lone wolf terrorist ‘threat’ and re-formulate potential mitigation options. As the lone wolf threat continues to permeate liberal democratic society, citizens of late modernity are plunged into a profound paradoxical bind: the continuous tension between the actualization of an individual’s vulnerability against lone wolf attacks, and the perpetual desire to rely upon persecutory measures. These two contradictory tendencies embody a form of mimesis; a false dichotomy where an individual’s identity is placed in opposition to itself. Liberal democratic society’s ability to function as an institution is therefore hindered by the perpetual compounding of mimetic antagonism. Society’s perspectives and opinions are polarized by the use of violence within the socio-political domain of democratic nations.  Without dismantling the entirety of the mimetic process, the complex nature between mimetic desire and rivalry is destined to generate a paradoxical bind that aggregates within larger parallel formations. Due to the cumulative tendencies of mimetic rivalry, the relationship between lone wolf terrorism and democratic society is contaminated by a mimetic attractiveness; a situation in which human discord and mimesis lay the foundations for their own demise. The heuristic of ‘more’ becomes the instrument of self-harm, of inevitable destruction giving birth to the violence against democracy and the violence required to maintain it; an apocalyptic nightmare whose drama is heightened by its repetition.

The conceptualization of the lone wolf terrorist threat is therefore incorrect. A Girardian mimetic perspective acknowledges that the conceptual category of lone wolf terrorism is “undergoing a process of erosion, with boundaries blurring under the effect…of late modernity.” A mimetic understanding of conflict resolution can enable society to engage more deeply with introspection, to reflect upon societal attitudes and values. Mitigating the lone wolf terrorist threat therefore relies upon eliminating pathological resentment which results in violence. Here, the state has the opportunity to implement a practical solution to the manifestation of globalized resentment. By equalizing the expenditures on national public health, or establishing universal access to mental healthcare, the state rewards its constituents with psychological incentives that prevent the rise of a lone wolf. In comparison to the liberal tendency to govern the effects of failure, universal access to psychotherapy allows individuals to feel more deeply about their failures and discontents; members of society can better understand the moral grievances of others. Liberal democratic society can reflect upon its ontological realities and attempt to deconstruct the mimetic roots of violent conflict. Thus, policymakers, practitioners and international relations scholars should engage further with Girardian mimetic theory and the concept of universal mental healthcare as a means of mitigating the lone wolf terrorist threat.

Resentment is the product of an individual’s perception of the realities of democratic society, and therefore both the individual and the democratic state must be interrogated to address the problem of mimetic violence. Throughout this essay, I have argued that the concept of a lone wolf terrorist ‘threat’ is defined by the mimetic relationship between the individual and democratic society. I first introduced Girardian mimetic theory and outlined the connections between mimetic desire and rivalry, and the potential for violent conflict. I discussed the ways in which liberal democratic society and the individual are plunged into a paradoxical state, where the mimetic rivalry over desire produces a globalized pathological resentment upon its constituents. In the second section of this essay, I examined the ways in which lone wolf terrorists project their globalized resentment upon society, placing particular emphasis on the exploitation of the internet and threats to democratic integrity. In the final component of this essay, I offered a mimetic mitigation approach to lone wolf terrorism, which acknowledges the importance universal access to psychotherapy holds for the prevention of emerging lone wolf terrorists. Girardian mimetic theory therefore highlights the ways in which Western liberal democratic societies preserve the perpetual manufacturing of violent conflict.

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