The most natural immediate response to Anders Behring Breivik's killings is one of horror. The bombing and shootings that killed 77 people (including 55 teenagers) have provoked expressions of revulsion from the mainstream media and politicians across the world. But while the different parts of the ruling class unite in their condemnation of this particular example of terrorism, they offer many different explanations for what happened.
Not just a matter of abnormal psychology
The response of the Right has been to describe Breivik as insane, a monster, and maniac, a psychopath and perpetrator of evil. Ultimately he is presented as an individual who has done something that needs a psychological or moral explanation. From Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, we get a simple narrative that goes from denying to employing a variety of psychology. The headline to his column in the Telegraph (31/7/11) says “There is nothing to study in the mind of Norway’s mass killer”. However, because “some girl he had a crush on jilted him in favour of a man of Pakistani origin” there were appalling consequences. “Sometimes there come along pathetic young men who have a sense of powerlessness and rejection, and take a terrible revenge on the world.”
The idea that this is madness divorced from any social reality needs to be rejected. The extent of Breivik's alienation from the rest of humanity is certainly exceptional. To shoot down dozens of young people in cold blood because you believe that only the forced deportation of Muslims from Europe can rectify society's wrongs clearly shows a personality with profound problems. But no individual acts in isolation from the society in which they've grown up
To take the most relevant aspect: we live in a world where every faction of the capitalist class participates in a perpetual campaign intended to incite racial and religious divisions. From the fascist groups that openly preach race hate and violence against minorities, to the liberal/leftist insistence on the need for us all to be loyal to an ethnic identity, the bourgeoisie has created an ideological web using the watchwords of assimilation and separatism, nationalism and multiculturalism, to sustain the idea of humanity divided along racial rather than class lines. The distance between a member of a Swedish anti-immigrant party saying of the Norway attacks that "this was caused by multiculturalism" to David Cameron saying that “multiculturalism has failed” is not far. When the Left leap to the defence of the status quo in the name of 'multiculturalism' the jigsaw is complete.
Breivik seemed to have spent a long time in the online twilight and immersed himself on some its furthest shores. He'd clearly been exposed to all sorts of expressions of the disintegration of the most basic of human solidarity. His actions demonstrated the most extreme alienation, but it has to be seen against the background of the bourgeoisie's ideology of racial and religious divisions, which is supposed to be taken as 'normal' and just 'common sense'.
In particular, the propaganda that depicts Muslims as an ever-present threat is only the latest phase of capitalist scapegoating. Over the decades this has embraced anti-semitism, the portrayal of darker skinned immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean as a 'menace' to civilisation, and the arrival of any group speaking a different language or having a different religion as having the potential to disrupt social order. Across Europe there is a consensus among the bourgeois political parties and throughout the capitalist media that immigration is inherently a threat. The lies change, and the propaganda can be more or less sophisticated, but capitalism has found a way to constantly focus on the danger of the 'other', of the alien. This ideology can have an impact on many personalities; in that sense Breivik is not at all unique.
Living in an irrational world
For the Left Breivik is seen as a typical Christian conservative, as evidence of the danger of growing fascist and racist extremism, and a product of Islamophobia. They confront the psychological explanations head on. In the words of Socialist Worker (30/7/11) “These murders were not the act of a psychopath - they were the actions of a man following the logic of a racist ideology which demonises Muslims.” In following this 'logic' “Breivik wanted to start a race war and he thought the conditions were right.” This does follow a certain logic, but it is the logic of the irrational.
Against the Left's rejection of psychological explanations it is necessary to state the obvious – the attacks in Norway were not the actions of a rational being. They do indeed flow from following an ideology that is inherently irrational. How do you 'start a race war' by attacking your fellow Norwegians?
Breivik's actions were not rational, but that puts his behaviour in line with the rest of bourgeois politics. For example, many Palestinian groups have for decades believed that attacking Israel will provoke a vicious response that will finally persuade Arab states in the region to deploy their military forces against the Jewish state. It's not rational, it sounds like it's based on the Book of Revelation, but it passes for a policy. In economics, a hundred years of experts providing solutions to capitalism's permanent crisis that never work will not deter economists, so drenched are they in the dominant ideology. In the US, it's not just the Tea Party and the fringes of Republicanism, but a whole range of Christian, fundamentalist and other ideologies that weigh on the functioning of the bourgeoisie and on the minds of much of the rest of the population.
Wherever you look, capitalism, for all its inherent drive for profit, for keeping out of the red in its balance sheets, is more and more in awe to the cult of unreason. The Left might think that contemporary capitalism is still set on a rational basis, but the actual experience of modern society reveals an increasing decomposition, part of which is expressed in a growing irrationalism in which material interests are not the only guide to behaviour.
In the case of Breivik it is of course possible that he's an unconscious pawn in a larger strategy, but the experience of Columbine, Virginia Tech and all the other massacres show that you don't need a political motive to start randomly killing your fellow creatures.
What we see with events like the attacks in Norway is something which, at a number of levels, demonstrates the decomposition of capitalist society. You can see the depth of alienation in one individual's behaviour, which unfortunately is not that unusual. There's the conscious attempt by the bourgeoisie to impede basic solidarity and foment hatred. Irrational behaviour marks groups and individuals. The ruling class encourages divisions; capitalist culture promotes and reinforces fear of others.
Many commentators have pointed to the response of the Norwegian Prime Minister as being exemplary, especially in the way that he specifically said that he would not use the attacks to strengthen the repressive powers of the state. He didn't need to. In the name of opposition to the atrocities there has been a whole campaign for Norwegian national unity. This is one of the strengths of democracy. The reality of class society is supposed to be put to one side as all come together under the 'protective' gaze of the capitalist state. As a class the bourgeoisie is still capable of using the evidence of social disintegration against the working class's potential for developing a real class unity and solidarity.
In the early stages of the events in Norway much of the media tried to convince us that we might be witnessing an Al-Qaida like attack, but had no difficult in changing tack when it turned out to be a 'home-grown' terrorist. This talent for propaganda is one of the few weapons that the bourgeoisie has left, that and capitalist terror.