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Social Identities

Vol. 17, No. 2, March 2011, 225238

A new world rising: Albert Camus and the absurdity of neo-liberalism

Muriam Haleh Davis*
Department of History, New York University, New York, USA
(Received 19 September 2009; final version received 7 June 2010)
This article investigates the writings of Albert Camus in light of neo-liberal
governmentality. Camus, a pied noir born in Algeria, was a key figure in the
debates regarding the trajectory of French colonial rule. While his absurdist
sensibility denounced absolute conceptions of justice and history, his cosmopolitan humanism rejected the possibility of an independent Algerian nation-state.
By examining his literary and political writings, this article sheds light on his
conceptions of the individual, natural limits, and legitimate violence. In so doing,
it identifies assumptions common to Camus notion of the absurd and neoliberalism while also arguing that the current neo-liberal climate has shaped many
of the recent discussions of his work.
Keywords: Albert Camus; neo-liberalism; absurdism; decolonization; Algeria

Le temps des colonialismes est fini (Camus, 1958, p. 23). This was Albert Camus
conclusion in 1958 after witnessing the ravages of colonialism in the Algerian region
of Kabylia. While we may lament the navete of such a stance, written just four years
before Algeria achieved a bloody independence, the genesis of colonial rule was the
topic of heated debates in the period leading up to the Algerian war (19541962).
Indeed, Robert Delavignettes prediction that the end of the World War One would
herald a new world rising had become patently clear by 1945 (Wilder, 2005, p. 36).
Ravaged by war, faced with the horrors of biological racism, and threatened by
anti-colonial revolts, Europe was forced to seek new ways to manage global conflict.
As David Theo Goldberg argues, the end of World War Two opened up the
movements making neoliberal strategies of political economy, its regimes of truth
and governmentality, ultimately conceivable (Goldberg, 2009, p. 340).
Perhaps no two individuals exemplify the intensity of debate surrounding this
new world order as clearly as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Both figures were
central in the post World War Two discussions on humanism and violence that
preoccupied thinkers such as Raymond Aron, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice
Merleau-Ponty, and Franz Fanon. Sartre warned of the systematic violence
perpetrated by colonialism, claiming that capitalism must be unilaterally denounced
in the political climate of the cold war. Camus, on the other hand, envisioned a
peaceful co-existence of colonized and colonizer in Algeria and argued that any call
for absolute justice would inevitably lead to tyranny. Although this abstract
humanism drew sharp criticism from his radical compatriots in 1950s, recent
decades have witnessed a Camusian revival that was recently highlighted by President
*Email: mhd248@nyu.edu
ISSN 1350-4630 print/ISSN 1363-0296 online
# 2011 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13504630.2011.558375


M.H. Davis

Sarkozys call to rebury Camus in the Panthe on in 2009. Interestingly, despite the
works in post-colonial studies that interrogate Camus untenable position on Algeria
(Chaulet-Achour, 1998; Haddour, 2000; Lazreg, 2008; OBrien, 1970; Said, 1993),
scholars working in disciplines such as French studies, literary criticism, and political
philosophy have celebrated his work as a lesson in moderation and tolerance
(Aronson, 2004; Bre e, 1972; Carroll, 2007; Cohen-Solal, 1998; Foley, 2008; Le Sueur,
2001; Sagi, 2002; Waltzer, 2006).
This article argues that Camus articulation of the absurd, which extended into
his philosophy, prose, and journalism, was an early avatar of what we might now
recognize as the prevailing neo-liberal governmentality. It also seeks to explain the
recent Camusian hagiography in light of neo-liberalism. In employing Foucaults
notion of governmentality, we are reminded that economic orthodoxy relies on
certain metaphysical assumptions that enable its claims to seem reasonable. Rather
than asking was Camus a neo-liberal?, to which the obvious answer would be no,1
the concept of governmentality allows us to investigate the set of rules enabling one
to establish which statements in a given discourse can be described as true or false
(Foucault, 2008, p. 35). Foucault reminds us that political rationalities of liberalism
and neoliberalism are essentially implicated in the redefinition and individuation for
the vital, the natural, and the physical (Terranova, 2009, p. 235). Moreover,
Foucaults work helps us to identify philosophical underpinnings that transcend the
disciplinary boundary between literature and economics, and draws our attention to
the ways in which economic orthodoxy is embedded in our understanding of the
human and nature.
In tracing the connections between postcolonial criticism and globalization
theory, this article also suggests that neo-liberalism was not merely a Western
doctrine. Rather, conceptions of the social and notions of economic orthodoxy that
emerged after World War Two must be analyzed in light of decolonization and the
changing modalities of colonial rule. While Camus work on Algeria has remained
separate from his writings on Europe (particular his advocacy of European
Federalism), the rethinking of French empire in the 1950s was irrevocably linked
to discussions surrounding the broader question of European integration (Gosnell,
2006). Since the founding of the Union Franc aise in 1946, France had experimented
with various forms of governance that would allow for regional differences to be
subsumed within a single political framework. Some politicians advanced the idea of
EurAfrica whereby Europe and Africa would be joined through economic prosperity
(Liniger-Goumaz, 1972; Perville, 1993). Camus proposed Mediterranean unity and
founded the French Committee for the European Federation (CFFE) in 1944, which
promoted European integration along the lines of radical syndicalism. The
organization called for the creation of a European citizenship over and above that
pertaining to individual nations and sought to control the administration of
colonial territories not yet ripe for independence (Lipgens & Carucci, 1980, p. 349).
This link between colonial rule and regional identity indicates that any attempt to
understand European integration as a precursor to neo-liberalism must also
investigate the changing dynamics of empire after 1945.
Camus defines the absurd as the confrontation between the human need and the
unreasonable silence of the world (Camus, 1991a, p. 28), noting that the goal is not
to be cured, but to live with ones ailments (Camus, 1991a, p. 38). Therefore, any
recourse to absolute notions of history or justice, which are often accompanied by a

Social Identities


justification of violence, deny the founding confrontation of the absurd and result in
another oppressive, totalizing regime. In what follows, I will show that these
philosophical underpinnings are shared by the neo-liberal worldview. Drawing on
classical liberalisms concern for individual rights, private property, and civilizational
hierarchies, neo-liberalism can be traced back to the 1950s when thinkers such as
Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman formulated a response to radical leftist
movements. Indeed, scholars increasingly recognize that the roots of neoliberalism
can be found in the global economic crisis following World War Two (Brenner, Peck,
& Theodore, 2010).
Neo-liberalism, however, departed from its enlightenment antecedents in
important ways. While focusing on the individual as an autonomous agent who
should seek to maximize his/her own fulfillment, neo-liberalism posits that market
competition will ensure an equitable outcome for society. In arguing that Camus
absurdism was a precursor to what we now recognize as the Washington Consensus,
I examine conceptions of solidarity, history, and violence in order to illuminate how
Camus literary and political writings foreshadowed an emerging neo-liberal
That there are shared assumptions between absurdism, a specific literary and
philosophical movement, and neo-liberalism, a global project rooted in economic
thought, is not as outlandish as it may first appear. In fact, the socio-historical
foundations of neo-liberalism were also instrumental in the emergence of absurdism.
The polarized climate of the cold war and the irreverent, often violent, demands of
the so-called third world, profoundly disrupted the stability of the prevailing world
order. The challenge to find a third way between communism and capitalism
(Rustow, 1980), along with the crisis of traditional forms of empire, called for new
paradigms in metaphysics as well as economics. Decolonization was vital in shaping
the structures of power after the cold war (Connelly, 2002) as the shock of anticolonial nationalism undermined the grand narrative of European progress (Young,
Some scholars have linked this reassessment of European supremacy to the
emergence of absurdism. Martin Esslin claims that the cold war and decolonization
were key factors in the articulation of the absurd since they necessitated a new way to
think about the subject (Esslin, 1991). Undoubtedly, the crisis of empire and the
backlash against communism were also instructive for neo-liberalism, which can be
understood as a new form of biopolitics that replaced the disciplinary power of
formal imperialism with a more fluid model of hegemony (Hardt & Negri, 2000).
After World War Two and the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, modernity was
increasingly articulated in relationship to the market economy as politicians stressed
the markets civilizing capacities. While neo-liberalism and absurdism are by no
means the only two indices of these paradigmatic shifts, their shared common sociohistorical roots certainly provide a basis for comparison.

A brotherhood of race? The triumph of the cosmopolitan subject

[T]hey had to learn how to live in relation to others, to the immense host of conquerors,
now dispossessed, who had preceded them on this land and in whom they now had to
recognize the brotherhood of race and destiny. (Camus, 1996, p. 196)


M.H. Davis

Camus absurdism responds to the basic question: what makes life worth living?
Faced with the crimes of historical materialism, and lacking any recourse to a higher
moral power, Christianity and Marxism are regarded as dangerous prophecies of a
kingdom yet to come. Claiming that the ends justify the means, both ideologies
sacrifice innocent lives, either in the hopes of salvation or a never-achieved classless
utopia. In contrast, absurdism accepts that definitive answers are impossible and
advocates a spirit of rebellion which serves no other purpose than to be part of the
act of living (Camus, 1991b, p. 19). According to Camus, individual experience is the
basis for human solidarity. This sentiment summarized in the oft-quoted phrase
I rebel  therefore we exist (Camus, 1991b, p. 22). In fact, scholars often point to
this individual focus as an indication of the profoundly compassionate nature of
Camus work. V.C. Letemendia notes Camus passion for individual freedom
(Letemendia, 1997, p. 441), and David Carroll writes that Camus most important
contribution to politics in general was his insistence that humanitarian concerns, the
lives of individuals, had to come before political objectives (Carroll, 2007, p. xxii).
This valorization of atomized individuals, who are loosely affiliated through a
vaguely defined humanism, denies any possibility of historically-formed collectivities
and has deep resonances with the neo-liberal vision of the social. In both cases,
mobilization against oppression has no choice but to adopt a partial protest that is
devoid of politically structured solidarities. Under neo-liberalism, struggles for racial
equality are subsumed under the dictum a rising tide raises all boats, while identity
politics replaces concrete demands for collective rights. While there is a formally
color blind cosmopolitanism at work, both neo-liberalism and Camus offer a
consistently racialized response to the profound question recently asked by Judith
Butler (2004): what makes a life grievable?
Camus, a pied noir born in Algeria, was committed to the Republican ideal of
French Algeria, pointing to the existence of a Mediterranean race that precluded the
existence of an independent Algerian nation-state. This proto-Braudelian fantasy,
as Emily Apter has called it (Apter, 1997, p. 508), drew on a belief that emerged in the
nineteenth century: in French Algeria, French technical expertise would merge with
Arab nobility of spirit to create a new racial fusion. This conception of a
Mediterranean man was a form of cosmopolitanism whereby an allegedly universal
ideal would be realized through the global mobility of a privileged segment of the
population. Stemming from Kants notion of a single universal law, these citizens of
the world could transcend the bounds of the nation-state. Historicizing this
celebratory mode of universal belonging, Inderpal Grewal has traced neo-liberalism
to nineteenth century cosmopolitanism. She notes that in the nineteenth century,
cosmopolitanism used colonial power and racial privilege to cross national
boundaries. Grewal also argues that this conception was a condition of possibility
for the articulation of the twentieth century cosmopolitanism that was allied to
neoliberal logics of efficiency and privatization (Grewal, 2007, pp. 178179).
Neo-liberalism also relies on cosmopolitan sentiments by privileging the figure of
the hybrid as an individual or experience that can escape from its historical and
territorial roots in order to join the global flow of commodities. Under neoliberalism, the stubborn figure of the local, who resists the logics of capital mobility
and open markets, is ripe for assimilation and commodification. Difference can be
sold as a variant of the universal as long as it is tamed to seem somewhat familiar; the
exotic is appealing while the foreign seems resistant and menacing (Goldberg, 2009).

Social Identities


As David Harvey writes, neo-liberalism has to be backed up by a practical strategy

that emphasizes the liberty of consumer choice, not only with respect to particular
products but also with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression, and a wide range of
cultural practices (Harvey, 2005, p. 42).
Camus is also invested in geographic mobility and freedom of choice. In
accordance with his pied noir cosmopolitanism, individuals are able to partake in the
best of both shores of the Mediterranean without needing to claim belonging to
either Algeria or France. Yet this commitment stands in stark contrast to the
bifurcated identities that were produced by two centuries of brutal colonial rule
(Collona, 1997; Haddour, 2000; Gosnell, 2002). For Camus, Algeria is rendered a
space of mobility that offers the possibility of a hybrid experience, thereby allowing
him to reject Algerian claims to an Arab, autonomous, national self. As Zygmunt
Bauman writes, [e]xempted from the sovereignty of territorially circumscribed
political units, just like the extraterritorial networks inhabited by the global elite,
hybrid culture seeks its identity in freedom from ascribed and inert identities,
labels or stigmas that circumscribe and limit the movements and choices of the placebound read: the locals (Bauman, 2005, p. 23). If the world is flat, Bauman
inquires about those who have literally been flattened in the process. How should we
understand the resilience of those who seem stuck, unwilling or unable to enter the
promised garden of hybridity?
While colonized peoples demanded a nation-state to protect them from the
ravages of colonialism, Camus advocated regional identity and a means of universal
governance. Equating colonized with colonizer he went so far as to say that The
French of Algeria are also natives, in the strong sense of the term (Les Franc ais de
lAlge rie sont, eux aussie, et au sens fort du terme, des indige`nes) (quoted in Said, 1993,
pp. 216217). This humanism, a beauty common to all men (Camus, 1991b, p. 251),
ensures that absurdism does not lapse into nihilism and forms the basis for all human
solidarity since the community of victims is the same as that which unites victim
and executioner (Camus, 1991b, p. 16). Yet this universal abstraction effectively
forecloses any recognition of the collectivities formed by historical injustice or
structures of power. While Camus is clearly concerned with the unity of human kind,
the question of political mobilization remains unanswered.
Despite Camus sweeping humanism, the autonomous individual remains the
primary unit of analysis. Each person must seek to maximize his or her own interests
and any attempt to explain success or failure by recourse to external circumstances is
viewed as a denial of basic responsibility. Having accepted that this life has no other
aspect other than the absurd, one must say that what counts is not the best living
but the most living (Camus, 1991a, pp. 6061). In other words, we should evaluate
[m]ans rule of conduct and his scale of values based on the quantity and variety of
experiences he has been in a position to accumulate (Camus, 1991a, p. 61). If, as
Foucault claims, neo-liberalism inaugurates the subject of interest (Foucault, 2008,
p. 273), a single entrepreneurial agent who strives to intensify the possibilities of their
own existence, this individual is foreshadowed by Camus conception of the absurd
For the market to function as an idealized entity, neo-liberalism must abstract
individuals from the historical and political formations in which they operate. Here
emerges the ethic of self-reliance that is crucial to the neo-liberal discourses of
efficiency and transparency. Again Camus proves a helpful ally, warning us that


M.H. Davis

when judging our individual successes, we should not lapse into the common fallacy
of thinking that the quantity of experiences depends on the circumstances of our life
when it depends solely on us (Camus, 1991a, p. 62). Each person is asked to bear full
responsibility for the diversity of his or her experiences. Camus absurd focus on selfreliance echoes the neo-liberal crusade against market regulations and social
dependencies; since individual entrepreneurship is the sole cause of prosperity, all
factors which intervene are viewed as dangerous obstacles to the equilibrium of the
This narrow focus on the individual precludes any account of historic inequalities
structured by race. Both neo-liberalism and absurdism are color-blind in that the
experience of the individual transcends race in a formally egalitarian philosophy. For
Camus, who is situated within a long tradition of French Republicanism in Algeria,
this is not surprising. Republicanism itself has always split between the ideal of
equality and the practice of exclusion, a tension that was mitigated by the assertion
of racial difference.2 After World War Two, racial difference was often expressed in
terms of civilizational hierarchies and cultural capacities rather than biological
inferiority, a logic that has been rehashed extensively by neo-liberalism. As Todd
Shepard suggests, there is likely a connection between his formally color blind racial
discourse and the French model of Republican universality (Shepard, 2006, p. 14).
Just as French Republicanism was predicated on the racial exclusions it sought to
deny, Camus notion of the absurd relies on a cultural othering rooted in notions of
civilizational difference. In both the absurd and neo-liberal, a racial calculus
determines which lives are deemed grievable.
According to David Theo Goldberg, race in the neo-liberal era operates through
a set of antiracial commitments which entail a forgetting, getting over, moving on,
wiping away the terms of reference, at best (or worst) a commercial memorializing
rather than a recounting and redressing of the terms of humiliation and devaluation (Goldberg, 2009, p. 21). Neo-liberalism is vigilant against the prospect of
reparations, affirmative actions, or other structural means of addressing the history
of racism. Instead, it flaunts an easy multiculturalism, asserting that the rough edges
of racist practice will be smoothed over by the egalitarianism of the market, thereby
obscuring the fact that economic inequalities and life expectancy remain deeply tied
to race.
Similarly, Camus writings on Algeria rely on a geographical imaginary that is
heavily structured by racial difference. Here, I am drawing on Edward Saids
reminder that imagined geographies are always produced through ideologies of
power as a marker of cultural proximity and difference (Said, 1993). Camus depicts
Algeria as a hostile landscape in which racial distinctions emerge as the ordering
principle of the land itself. In contrast to the French characters, Arabs appear as
forces of nature and silent collectivities that invoke the exoticism of teas, tapestries
and spices, and which only occasionally intrude on the European consciousness. For
example, in The Adulterous Wife, Jeannie, who feels overwhelmed by the mundane
trappings of her marriage, finds refuge on a rooftop, a single vantage point from
where she can observe: All around a herd of motionless dromedaries, tiny at this
distance, formed the dark signs of a strange writing whose meaning had yet to be
deciphered (Camus, 2006, p. 11). While Jeannie is able to find an Archimedean point
from which to view the nomadic mass, the Arabs themselves represent a scattered,
obscure, and bare physicality.

Social Identities


Even though Camus takes great pains to emphasize the rooted connection that
Europeans enjoy with the land, Arabs are granted a much less anchored attachment
to Algerian soil. Writing on the impossibility of tearing the Algerian-born French
from their natural home (Camus, 1995, pp. 124125), Camus nevertheless proposed
relocating the Kabyles to Southern France so that they might enjoy a better quality
of life. Thus, while Algeria is to be shared between two peoples, Camus racialized
geography asserts the primacy of French presence on the land and relegates the
Arabs to a pre-modern nomadism.
It is not just the Arabs, but non-Europeans more generally, who are excluded
from the spirit of revolt so crucial to European history. Camus suggests that
rebellion, which affirms that life has meaning despite the contradictions of the
absurd, seems to assume a precise meaning only within the confines of Western
thought. Since the spirit of rebellion can exist only in a society where a theoretical
equality conceals great factual inequalities, Camus concludes that [t]he problem of
rebellion, therefore, has no meaning except within our own Western society (Camus,
1958, p. 20). While individual freedom is sacred in both absurd and neo-liberal
dogma, the prerogatives of enlightened individuals are different from those offered to
the oppressed. For some, the freedom to exercise power, travel, and settle on land
may be guaranteed, but for others the right to live free from occupation or inequality
is effectively denied. Despite the swearing off of de jure racism, the de facto flows of
freedom are heavily dependent on a civilizational capacity that is solidly connected to
racial categories.

Within natural limits: the recourse to nature in absurdism and neo-liberalism

For the Christian, as for the Marxist, nature must be subdued. The Greeks are of the
opinion that it is better to obey it. (Camus, 1991b, p. 190)

Inspired by Greek mythology, Camus absurdism proclaims Sisyphus, whose actions

represent a futile struggle against the laws of nature, as the absurd hero. While
Christianity and Marxism posit the inexorable march of history, the Greek
worldview replaces these Gods of history with its own pantheon. Prometheus, the
first rebel, denies the right to punish, and even Zeus himself is not innocent enough
to exercise this right (Camus, 1991b, pp. 240241). The Greeks, unaware of the
historical spirit of totality (Camus, 1991b, p. 193), obey nature rather than abiding
by Christianitys historicist promise. For Camus, as for the Greeks, nature is beyond
reproach. Indeed, reverence for phenomena deemed natural begins with admiration
for the Greeks and ends in an appeal for the continued occupation of Algeria.
Foucaults genealogy of neo-liberalism helps us to contextualize the role of nature
in the history of European political thought. Foucault writes that in the mideighteenth century, the emergence of political economy as a discipline assumed a
certain naturalism whereby governmental practice was only legitimate if it obeyed the
nature of the objects that it set out to govern. Foucault explains that if it were to go
against laws determined by this naturalness specific to the objects it deals with, it
would immediately suffer negative consequences (Foucault, 2008, p. 16). With the
emergence of neo-liberalism, the legitimacy of the state is based on the guarantee of
economic freedom, which is jointly produced through growth, well-being, the state,
and the forgetting of history (Foucault, 2008, p. 86). Thus, like Camus absurdism,


M.H. Davis

the elaboration of neo-liberalism relies on a deference to natural forces and a

suspicion of historical commitments.
Camus naturalism has a number of implications. First of all, the invocation of
natural phenomenon serves to depoliticize any causal factors. For example, in The
Stranger, when Meursault kills an Arab, Camus describes the confrontation in terms
of the scorching heat rather than the social segregation mandated by settler
colonialism. There is no reference to the political transgression of the Arab, who
has encroached on a European space by approaching Meursault on the beach.
Instead, the novel focuses on the absurdity of the events that are instigated by the
mid-day sun.
Camus also overlooks the root causes of unrest in Algeria in his accounts of
Misery in Kabylia, a series of articles that were published between 515 June 1939.
In these reports, Camus focuses on the fact that the population has outstripped its
natural resources. He identifies the principal causes of Algerias woes as a lack of
food, unemployment and overpopulation, rather than an exploitative colonial
system. Thus he defines Kabylia as an overpopulated country and that consumes
more than it produces (un pays surpueple est elle consomme plus quelle ne produit),
rather than a region suffering from an unjust occupation (Camus, 1958, p. 33). By
attributing daily hardship to a naturalized disequilibrium of supply and demand
rather than political oppression, Camus obscures the systematic poverty engendered
by colonialism.
This narrative structure invokes a geographical determinism that posits a
separation between the social and natural realms (Latour, 1993; Mitchell, 2002).
As Naomi Klein writes, neo-liberalism claims that the economic forces of supply,
demand, inflation and unemployment were like the forces of nature, fixed and
unchanging (Klein, 2007, p. 61). In a worldview in which nature remains separate
from structures of power, the naturalism of economic reform is able to elide a deeply
political agenda, whether it is that of the World Bank or a more traditional colonial
power such as France.
The second implication of Camus naturalism is evidenced by his moral
philosophy of moderation. According to his notion of la mesure, rebellion must
obey its own founding principles: In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion
must respect the limit it discovers in itself (Camus, 1991b, p. 22). This recourse to
nature results in a reformism that precludes radical structural change. Since nature
cannot be structured by an exterior logic, one can administer incremental reforms
but systematic transformation must be avoided. In The Rebel, Camus explains the
danger inherent in totalizing notions of revolution and advocates a perpetual spirit
of rebellion that is necessarily limited in scope. Revolution is the injection of ideas
into historical experience, while rebellion is only the movement that leads from
individual experience into the realm of ideas (Camus, 1991b, p. 106). In formulating
this logic of relative change, Camus again turns to the Greeks: In their universe there
were more mistakes then crimes, and the only definitive crime was excess. In a world
entirely dominated by history, which ours threatens to become, there are no longer
any mistakes, but only crimes, of which the greatest is moderation (Camus, 1991b,
p. 28). The workings of nature may be temporarily manipulated, but its fundamental
wisdom cannot be undermined.
Neo-liberalism parallels this reformism in its concern for distortions that
disfigure the idealized workings of a self-regulating market. As Alejandro Cola`s has

Social Identities


remarked, neo-liberalism promises that once all artificial distortions are eliminated,
globalization will be able to realize its true potential as a universally beneficial system
(Cola`s, 2005). Yet, as many have noted, this perfection is never achieved. Each time
reality fails to meet expectations, instead of questioning the natural selection of the
market itself, a team of neo-liberal prophets uses their expertise to bring about
various reforms. Needless to say, the structural inequalities of capitalism or neocolonialism are never brought under review since the natural truth of the market is
akin to the universe of the Greeks. In both cases, the laws of nature are not to be
analyzed, but obeyed.

Born of solitude: Camus and neo-liberalism on violence

Violence is both inevitable and unjustifiable. [La violence est a` la fois inevitable et
injustifiable.] (Camus, 2002, p. 74)

According to Camus, bloodshed can never be justified since violence answers

violence in a growing frenzy that makes the simple language of reason seem
impossible (Camus, 1995, p. 116). In Algeria, the violence of the FLN is considered
a fanatical compulsion propelled by individuals who are incapable of rationality.
Camus is quick to discount Arab nationalism as a conception springing wholly from
emotion (Camus, 1995, p. 145), a belief consistent with his depiction of Arabs as a
people who are preoccupied with corporeal rather than metaphysical concerns. This
attitude, which denies the political causes of terrorism in favor of a cultural
explanation, has become the hallmark of neo-liberal accounts of violence.
Camus castigates certain eruptions of violence as examples of irrationality while
failing to see the forms of violence that are sanctioned by the status quo. Take, for
example, the confused historical logic of his claim that the inexcusable massacring of
French civilians leads to the equally stupid destruction of the Arabs (Camus, 1995,
p. 128). This belief is mirrored by scholars who defend Camus by pointing to the
unfortunate logic of violence that prevailed during the Algerian war (Le Sueur,
2001, p. 115). Similarly, Camus argument that terrorism is born of solitude, and
therefore raises justifiable doubts as to the political maturity of men capable of such
acts (Camus, 1995, p. 129), pointedly overlooks the ways in which the violence of the
FLN was structured by realpolitik (Hutchinson, 1978). It also echoes the neo-liberal
view that refuses to acknowledge the role of economic structures in promoting
violent forms of cultural nationalism. By positing violence as an irrational act of
barbaric thugs or religious zealots, neo-liberalism must actively forget that
postcolonial national identity formation is in part a response to neocolonial
economic globalization (Cheah, 1998, p. 310).
Given his views on violence, it is not surprising that Camus unilaterally
condemned those who committed acts of terrorism in Algeria. While questions of
terrorism may seem unrelated to Camus notion of the absurd, they both elaborate
the commitments and responsibilities that define the fundamental meaning of human
existence  in life as well as death. According to the absurd, [i]t is essential to die
unreconciled and not of ones own free will (Camus, 1991a, p. 55). This, of course, is
in dramatic contrast to the terrorist or suicide bomber, who dies of his or her free
will, completely reconciled to their struggle. These individuals who die willingly and
with conviction resist the symbolic structures that define the fundamental attributes


M.H. Davis

of humanity. Indeed, the criterion by which we deem violence to be barbaric or

merely unfortunate depends on which populations are considered more disposable
and the forms of authority that we choose to recognize.
The absurd, like neo-liberalism, also calls for the erasure of past doctrines and
traditional practices. Camus writes that [a]bsurdism, like methodical doubt, has
wiped the slate clean (Camus, 1991b, p. 10). This may represent a new point of
departure for Camus, but it renders previous structures and solidarities invisible or
insignificant. Yet Camus makes no such distinction by denouncing all murder
unequivocally and overlooking other forms of death or deprivation, such as
occupation. Similarly, through a narrow concern with murder and acts of terror,
the proponents of neo-liberalism fail to recognize those who die less spectacular
deaths at the hand of famine or poverty rather than a fiery grenade. According to
the neo-liberal world-view, violence is denounced when it takes certain forms (suicide
bombings, vandalism, riots), but is accepted when it quietly works through more
acceptable means (financial policies, trade flows, multinational corporations).
Naomi Klein writes that the implementation of neo-liberal policy often requires a
blank slate on which new patterns of authority, consumption, and lifestyle may be
inscribed (Klein, 2007, p. 419). Family solidarities, local traditions, and economic
arrangements of yesteryear must be systematically erased. According to Klein, this
occurs not through metaphysical doubt, as it does for Camus absurdism, but
through shock and awe bombings, torture, and collective punishment. In the end, it
is necessary to reach a ground zero of understanding, where past patterns and
collectives can be abolished, and a new modality of existence can come to the fore.
As open market policies rage havoc on the social structures and basic livelihood of
various communities, the pedestrian violence of neo-liberal policy is rendered
invisible. When a violent outburst does flare up, it is often viewed through the
colonial optic of irrational, often religious, fanaticism. The ongoing violence in the
banlieues of Paris should serve as a case in point. Similarly, the 2005 law obliging
teachers to teach the positive effects of French colonialism exemplifies the forms of
forgetting that are sanctioned by the economic and political orthodoxy of our times.
This elision of certain forms of violence speaks directly to the relationship
between political economy and humanism. If we recognize the specific cultural
formation of the human (Butler, 2008, p. 219) that has marked the second half of the
twentieth century, we must acknowledge the profound impact of Republicanism and
the discourse of the market on current understandings of the individual and society.
Struggling to face the realities of the Vichy occupation, third worldism, and the crisis
of European identity after World War Two, Camus maintained that only a
reassertion of Western humanism could save Europe. Others, most notably Sartre
and Fanon, refused such philosophical nostalgia and called for an alternative
humanism that would transcend Europe, both in terms of geography and history.
Many who laud Camus humanism have labeled Sartre and Fanon as dangerous
proponents of violence. James Le Sueur, for example, concludes that without
question, Fanons work and Sartres preface to it are two of the most negatively
influential works on violence written during the war; unfortunately, they have had
lasting implications in postcolonial Algeria and throughout the world (Le Sueur,
2000, p. 44). Where Camus sought moderation, Sartre claimed that an understanding
of the system and an ability to totalize were essential in combating the structures of
colonialism. While sharing these convictions, Fanons intervention was an important

Social Identities


reminder of the corporeal reality of racism, serving as a corrective to Sartres own

problematic position in French intelligentsia (Ciccariello-Maher, 2008).
Yet Sartre and Fanon were not apologists for violence, nor did they offer a moral
justification for needless bloodshed. Fanon maintained that Africans had been
excluded from the foundations of European humanism and highlighted the fact that
this history had been structured by violence. His forceful call sought to persuade
[his] brother, whether black or white, to tear off with all his strength the shameful
livery put together by centuries of incomprehension (Fanon, 1967, p. 12). For Sartre,
not only was violence an integral part of the colonial system, but any appeal to an
abstract justice that ignored the structural logic of exploitation and discrimination
must be seen as an attempt to skirt history (Sartre, 2001). Rather than returning to
the bloodied and bankrupt tradition of French Republicanism, Fanon and Sartre
advocated an alternative humanism that recognized the epistemological and physical
violence inherent in the colonial condition.
In conclusion, as we live through Sartres moment of boomerang in which
colonial violence comes back and hits us, it is worth reflecting on the connections
between humanism, decolonization, and the austere edges of neo-liberal policies
(Sartre, 2001, p. 147). Humanism, which asserts a universal quest for dignity and
justice, is deeply imbricated with current structures of power, most notably the IMF
and World Bank. While operating from a distance, they assert not only ideological
neutrality, but also an intimate knowledge that has been authorized by specialized
training. In the wake of decolonization, a politics of proximity has encouraged a
narrow focus on regional knowledge and technical expertise. While local knowledge
and histories are always crucial, the neo-liberal worldview has often upheld a myopic
proximity as the only relevant perspective. Indeed, it is not insignificant that one of
the earliest challenges to neo-liberal orthodoxy came from world systems theory,
which extrapolated the study of specific regions to form a macro theory of neocolonial exploitation.
This politics of proximity, which has encouraged an increasingly specialized
production of knowledge, has also valorized Camus. To return to the debate between
Camus and Sartre regarding Algeria, Annie Cohen-Solal espouses a view that nicely
sums up the recent judgment of their ideological divergence: Camus, at home,
understands the complexity of the Algerian situation, the human bonds, the
impossible ruptures, the relativity of the issues. Sartre, in Paris, analyses from a
distance the macro-structures which rule the conflict and opposes them in a simple,
Manichean, demonstrative fashion (Cohen-Solal, 1998, p. 45). Camus good
judgment, therefore, is due to his proximity to the issues and country at hand.
Since he is closer to the ground, so to speak, Camus has an insight that seems
inherently more reliable than that of far-off commentators. Yet, one might ask, at
what point do we laud distance as a mark of objectivity, and when do we claim that
an opinion is too far removed from the issue to be of use?
Germaine Bre e also compares Camus pragmatism to Sartres abstraction,
claiming that Sartre was blinded to the simple necessities because he lacked
Camus instinctive sense of the realities at issue (Bre e, 1972, p. 187). This
vindication of Camus moderate humanism fits comfortably with the dominant
trends in academia since the cold war. The rise of area studies, and security and
democracy studies more recently, encourages a specialized production of knowledge that overlooks the larger framework in which conflicts actually occur.


M.H. Davis

Subsequently, Sartres structural approach to violence and inequality has been

largely discredited. Camus, on the other hand, who laments poverty while remaining
silent on the connection between colonialism and capitalism, is upheld as the model
of European humanism.
This tendency to separate East and West into different analytic registers is
mirrored by neo-liberal discourse, which fails to connect the violence of neo-colonial
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the privatizing logic espoused by Western powers.
Thus while racism might be an unfortunate exception to the egalitarian principles
instituted in the West, it is not understood as constitutive of the liberal order itself.
Similarly, while authors can laud the multiculturalism of European tolerance as
stated by Camus, they take the exceptional violence of Algerias recent past as proof
that Camus was prescient in his analysis (Carroll, 2007, p. 110). That terrorism over
there may be linked to economic or political practices over here remains a thoroughly
unfashionable conclusion.
In rehashing the political context of Camus triumph over Sartre, I am not
arguing that we should embrace the Sartrean approach to decolonization. As the
writings of Pierre Bourdieu and Franz Fanon have convincingly argued, Sartres
universalizing tendencies too easily cast the colonized in a revolutionary mode and
failed to account for the specificity of the Algerian struggle. Instead, by analyzing the
renewed popularity of Camus in light of neo-liberalism, it seems that academic
trends themselves, even in the heights of the ivory tower, may be decisively influenced
by the prevailing mode of governmentality.
I would like to thank David Theo Goldberg, Dorian Bell, and Mohammad Abed for their
comments on an earlier draft of this article.

1. Such a claim would be especially untenable given Camus advocacy for economic
collectivism and his early involvement with the French Communist Party.
2. By invoking Republicanism, I am specifically referring to the French tradition in which
individual differences would be subsumed within an abstract collectivity. Based on the
principles of 1789, Republicanism crystallized under the Third Republic and is often cited
as a driving force in the civilizing mission. Anne Conklin has described it as: an
emancipatory and universalistic impulse that resisted tyranny; an ideal of self-help and
mutualism that included a sanctioning of state assistance to the indigent when necessary;
anticlericalism, and its attendant faith in reason, science, and progress; an ardent
patriotism founded on the creation of a loyal, disciplined and enlightened citizenry; and a
strong respect for the individual, private property, and morality (Conklin, 1997, pp. 78).

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