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After Oslo: the Radical Loser and the ‘Vital Center’

It was a question of which kind of radical loser would get the decent people of Norway first.

For a while it seemed it would be the AQ type. Only last year, the scholars Thomas Hegghammer and Dominic Tierney asked in the Atlantic, “Why Does Al-Qaeda Have a Problem With Norway?” The pair reported on a suspected AQ cell rolled up in Oslo in July 2010 that had been plotting chemical attacks. In 2006, the AQ theoretician and preacher Abu Yahya al-Libi called on Muslims to attack Norway. “Send rivers of blood down their streets ... hone your swords and shake the ground beneath their feet.”

But in the end, it was the blood-and-soil national “Christian” patriot type of radical loser that did the terrible deed.

For Abu Yahya al-Libi and Anders Behring Breivik are both radical losers, a concept coined by the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger in 2005 in a profound article that analyzed that figure plaguing liberal democracies—the radically alienated, personally tormented, and literally explosive individual.

Some radical losers are just that—individuals.

The loser keeps his ideas to himself. That is the trouble. He keeps quiet and waits. He lets nothing show, which is precisely why he is feared. … Anyone with the smallest scrap of power within society will at times feel something of the huge destructive energy that lies within the radical loser [who] can explode at any moment. This is the only solution to his problem that he can imagine … his torment … certainly cannot be his own fault. That is inconceivable. Which is why he must find the guilty ones who are responsible for his plight. But who are these omnipotent, nameless aggressors? Thrown back entirely on his own resources, the answer to this nagging question is beyond the isolated individual. If no ideological program comes to his aid, then his search is unlikely to extend to the wider societal context, looking instead to his immediate surroundings and finding: the unjust superior, the unruly wife, the bad neighbour, the conniving co-worker, the inflexible public official.

But increasingly, the radical losers are forming collectives.

… when the radical loser overcomes his isolation, when he becomes socialized, finds a loser-home, from which he can expect not only understanding but also recognition, a collective of people like himself who welcome him, who need him … the destructive energy that lies within him is multiplied—his unscrupulousness, his amalgam of death-wish and megalomania—and he is rescued from his powerlessness by a fatal sense of omnipotence … a kind of ideological trigger is required to ignite the radical loser and make him explode. As history shows us, offers of this kind have never been in short supply. Their content is of the least importance. They may be religious or political doctrines, nationalist, communist or racist dogmas—any form of sectarianism, however bigoted, is capable of mobilizing the latent energy of the radical loser.

Oslo should make us face the fact that our societies are producing loser-homes, loser ideological programs, and loser-collectives, often in unhinged loser-cyberspace.

Anders Behring Breivik’s rambling “Manifesto” was a summation of radical loserdom. Its mishmash character reflected an intellectual culture that is heavily invested in viewing the mobilization of the explosive power of the radical loser as “cool.” Think of the conspiratorialism that passes for political commentary (and even academic analysis) these days—all those smart-stupid, black-and-white theories that ignore human folly (crooked timber anyone?), unintended consequences, ethical dilemmas, and plain old history, to discover some all-revealing “Deep Truth” that always turns out to be a stupid and superficial dogma about a cabal (“the Neocons” or “the Zionists” or “the Muslims” or “the Corporations”) who are about to unleash some disaster on us (“Empire!” “ZOG!” “Eurabia!” “End Times!”). Think of the ability of the “truther” and “birther” hysterias to become near common sense. Think of the widespread and scandalous intellectual rehabilitation of redemptive violence that is going on. No, a radical loser like Anders Behring Breivik, living at home with his Mum, his anger spectacular and implacable, was spoilt for choice.

When the terrible news broke, I recalled the summers I spent at the British Labour Party Young Socialist summer camp in the beautiful Forest of Dean, working-class kids drowning in honey as surely as Evelyn Waugh’s Charles Ryder ever did at Brideshead. So I know something of who these young social democrats were and what was in their hearts when the radical loser exploded in their midst. And I have an inkling what they need from us now. They need us to rouse ourselves and fight for a new vital center in society. They need us to discover within ourselves a zeal for moderation, an enthusiasm for skepticism, a dogmatic adherence to complexity, and an immoderate attachment to moderation.

To quote W. B.Yeats, Anders Behring Breivik was the very worst of us, a radical loser who was full of passion without mercy. It is time for the best of us to discover our conviction and renew the vital center.

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