That spring saw a series of unusual crimes, quickly dubbed “19th century” crimes by the press. They were committed by exploited people of all sorts, clerks, wage earners, farm workers, various kinds of household help, all kinds of people stuck in poverty, and those killed were bosses (male and female), people who thought “you just have to…,” to do what? Do this or that, study, succeed, get a nice suit, make an effort, cross the street, etc. Clearly, France was divided in two, those who were for the criminals and those who were for the victims. But the fact is that the trend didn’t stop, it grew and spread, almost every day brought a new incident, sometimes more than one, in the cities, in the country, something was always happening. Some of the killers managed to get away, but most were arrested and were quick to claim responsibility for their crime, they even laughed openly, mockingly, and made jokes that were not really funny, in short the world was upside down. Or rather it was a throwback to that 19th century that was of course imaginary, but even so the class line was so clearly visible that no one could avoid thinking about it, and that’s why the term “19th century crime,” coined by a journalist with a column in a respectable regional newspaper, had taken hold and was heard everywhere. What no one could understand was why all these crimes were occurring simultaneously, why all at once? First in March, then in April. Had there been any warning signs? If so, no one could pin them down.
But the savage nature of the crimes was unquestionable. They weren’t savage like the Papin Sisters’ crime, those household maids who had killed and mutilated their mistresses, tearing out their eyes, even if one young woman being arrested had sighed, “Ah the Papin sisters…” No, these crimes weren’t like … but savage… yes, savage… sudden, quick, unmotivated, no, perhaps not unmotivated, but nonetheless strange, impersonal, really insane. A model employee at a bank, twenty-five years of service, who suddenly drops a safe on the head of his director. A Portuguese mechanic who strangles his boss in the garage with wire that was close at hand. A chauffeur who drives the chief executive’s car into a wall (he himself jumps out before impact). Women were not to be outdone. Countless nurses were found to have poisoned their patients, so much so that it quickly became the practice for rich or even well-off people to have a family member give the shots. An employee in one butcher shop used a knife on her boss, a trainee at another one used her apron. Everywhere, North and South, East and West, in Paris and in the provinces, in cities, towns, and rural areas, a wind of madness.
But was it madness? There were debates in newspapers, magazines, some journals: “Causality(ies) of crime,” “The Reasons for Violence,” “Why Hatred?” “The Origins of Murder, the Murder of Origins,” nothing was very convincing. One book was all the rage, everyone read it, it was sold even in the most out of the way train stations, at least where there still was a train station, but the book’s title was what made its success, Madness and Society, inside it was a disappointing mess with nothing on madness or society really, just clichés. A sociology professor mobilized some very enthusiastic students to conduct a survey, but they came back empty handed. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego was read and reread, but it didn’t correspond to the facts at hand. Two young philosophers, Hegelians—all that is real is rational—signed an article on “the rationality of crime,” which caused a big stir, but after some intense debate, it was forgotten.
The list got longer, at the end of March the media started talking about recurring incidents, by April it was undeniable that something was happening, but what? Some tried to classify the incidents. One essayist, in a well-crafted piece, analyzed each crime, first one and then another, showing that in point of fact there really was a common element shared by all of them, it was the class element, someone really had to say the word. Or a refusal, one could at least venture to say, of domination. He spoke of “ruthless aggressiveness,” and even though the term, meaning a complete absence of guilt feelings, was well known, it made quite an impact. No clear demands were made, but there was something similar about the tone, so to speak, of the killings, or their manner, or their style. Style? When this word was used, there was an outcry, how could anyone speak of style, it was decadent, it smacked of the end of civilization, and yet still… True, there was no question of murder for profit, there was no profit to be had, and clearly no question of crimes of passion, on the contrary. The killer always had a relationship with the victim that was close and distant at the same time. He was connected, yes, but not really involved. He kept a certain distance. And any classification would not only have to account for the form the crimes took, but also define the motives. Hence the much- vaunted expression “19th century crimes” that seemed so appropriate. In short, no one knew what to think.
Toward mid-April, a few of the big bosses and business managers started to contact each other, consult each other, and even organize meetings. They wondered if they should call on the government to declare a state of emergency. But the question kept on recurring, what emergency? Who was really being targeted? Words like class, domination, subordination, and so on, had become outdated and cumbersome, in fact this was to a great degree because of these same bosses or company directors who controlled, as was well known, most of the newspapers and radio and television stations. What was to be done? Especially since there was no clear definition of the opposition, just a negativity, there, that was the term, no one knew who had said it first, but it caught on, it seemed adequate, apt, accurate, it took the true measure of the problem. France was going to founder, was foundering, in negativity, and it seemed that the people who had become targets were those who made the wealth and reputation of France.
But what was happening was quickly perceived by some as impossible to hold in check: if you take a good hard look, they said, if you are serious and honest, domination is everywhere, everywhere is domination. That’s all there was, from the bedroom (well, yes) to the most successful and modern business firm, to quaint little companies that might be a little outdated but still thriving. And in government, and in public services, in hospitals and in schools, universities, associations.
Theories were in circulation, written or spoken, but they turned out to be wrong, even ridiculous, and in any case ineffective. There was the claim that what was happening wasn’t political, that reading politics into it was stupid, distorted, and dangerous in the end. No one took the trouble to refute this opinion which, however, resurfaced again and again, and at the slightest pretext, just like a game of whack-a-mole. Someone would talk about the latest crime, and immediately add, “But it isn’t political.” The point was made, moreover, that the phrase, “but it isn’t political,” ended up seeming like a magic word, an exorcism. But it continued to be used all the time. It would be propped up by emphasizing that there was no collective, no collective dimension, merely individual acts, isolated people. A philosopher, calling on Aristotle, pointed out that man as such is a political animal, but his point found no echo. Was it a question of exemplary actions, did the killers want their crimes to serve as an example? Did they want to incite, be copied? Impossible to say, they didn’t speak, didn’t boast, proposed nothing. Was this disappointing? Perhaps for some. But that’s the way it was.
The movement—granted, the term movement was not, strictly speaking, appropriate, at least it had to be used with quotation marks, there still hadn’t been any claim made as to a link between the crimes, —so the “movement” then, it grew, it spread, it expanded like a puddle, like a cloud of gas—and the month of May—well, obviously everyone had been expecting this—was explosive. What was happening, and it took some time to realize this, was a sort of increasing abstraction, the crimes were still the acts of isolated individuals, but whose relationships with the victims seemed less close, less in proximity. It was less often a direct supervisor, a boss present at the workplace or on the site. Now, someone went after the CEO. Or else it was a government minister who had never really been seen, a legislator who wasn’t well known, a director of a newspaper or television station sitting in an office way down at the end of a hallway, in short, people who weren’t in the public eye every day but were definitely present by their actions in daily life. In this sense, these crimes required certain kinds of knowledge, more in-depth intellectual work, and yes even, as a remarkable columnist who had followed the events from the beginning noted, a higher level of abstraction than the first crimes to occur. At the same time, the killer always bore a personal grievance, he, or she, had been personally touched by the actions of the victim, even if he hadn’t been the only person affected. The first case of this type concerned a representative who had come up with the idea, and his proposal got a lot of attention, of rethinking the calculation of overtime pay, with the pretext of increasing competitiveness and incentivizing struggling businesses to hire. Two days later he was pushed under a bus by a machinist (actually he was unemployed, and might well have found work, some stressed, if the representative’s proposal had been voted in). The machinist only said one thing: “Stop the bullshit.” The sentence was strong, peremptory. It struck the imagination. For that matter, imaginations were all the more struck when two days later, in quite a different vein, the journalist who wrote the personals column of a widely circulating women’s magazine was strangled with a boot lace by a reader. She only said one sentence, and it was the same one, “Stop the bullshit.”
There was a wave. One might say a proliferation. “Stop the bullshit” was used repeatedly, everywhere. The Budget Minister died at the hand of a taxpayer in Marseille, the Minister of Agriculture was knocked out by a women who raised goats in Toulouse, a deputy of the Minister of National Education was stabbed by a math professor during a visit to a high school in Lyon, and each time, the sentence.
Was the “movement” headed toward what might be called a politicization? A fundamental debate was begun, although not always in an explicit way, that took up differently what had already been sparked by the claim that what was happening was in no way political. There were discussions, it was, so to speak, inevitable and brought about by the situation, about the nature of the political, was the sentence “Stop the bullshit” really a political sentence, at what point can a sentence be said to be political, etc? The question was asked, how much can any ordinary individual—the criminals were all just ordinary individuals—be driven by an idea, a concept, a representation, and then to what, to crime, is it really possible, it was possible since all this had taken place, but there had to be some other explanation, didn’t there?
LESLIE KAPLAN | DISORDER. A POLITICAL FABLE
TRANSLATED BY JENNIFER PAP
AK PRESS, 2020