A sharp distaste for something called “abstraction” is the common currency of much contemporary political analysis. This, to be sure, is a thoroughly reactionary sentiment. As a result, these responsible and sober political thinkers are eluded by an abstraction of central importance, something which they struggle mightily to explain. It is an abstraction so vast and varied that it rebounds all the way back to being the most possibly real thing of all: social life itself, the weight of the world.
Bereft of a theory which can grasp at this intensely visceral abstraction, how is one to find stable ground on which to base a theory of the whole? To upend the hollow, socially distanced time which quarantines capitalist society is a prerequisite for genuine historical knowledge of the present. This much has been clear at least since the mid-20th-century struggle against fascism. Some 80-odd years ago, a tormented Walter Benjamin cautioned against trusting in the crude historicist causality of event after event, as it would appear to be suspiciously well-suited for justifying “the storm called progress.” In his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin was arguably at his most lucid when he remarked that “no fact that is a cause is for that reason historical.” Historical facts—that is, living facts—offer a historical morphology of the present, littering it with the forms of the past.
In the HBO historical docu-series Exterminate All The Brutes (2021), released in April of this year, the Haitian director Raoul Peck offers a genre-bending visual exploration of modern history’s original sins—slavery, genocide, and colonialism. Several years ago, Peck experienced perhaps the widest popular and critical acclaim of his long career with an Academy Award-nominated and BAFTA-winning 2016 documentary film titled I Am Not Your Negro. The film, speaking quite powerfully to its own historical moment, set the words of an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript on the Civil Rights Movement against both historical and contemporary footage of Black life and struggle in America.
Peck’s film work has, by and large, focused on stories of social conflict and upheaval, with specific attention to black political struggle in the diaspora and the continent alike. This has included feature films like Sometimes in April (2005), on the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, documentaries (2013’s Fatal Assistance, on post-2010 earthquake rebuilding efforts in Haiti), and indeed even a documentary and a feature film on the same topic: Lumumba, Death of a Prophet (1990) and Lumumba (2000), on the brief career of the independent Republic of Congo’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba.
Peck, quite clearly, has never shied away from weighty issues and sincerely views his art as a socially engaged medium. In approaching the four-part Exterminate All The Brutes, most critics have emphasized Peck’s further engagement with the themes explored in I Am Not Your Negro. Certainly, this is accurate, but only in part. In a brief Statement of Intent monologue which is intended to be viewed prior to the docu-series’ first episode, Peck describes the genesis of Exterminate All The Brutes as follows:
“After my film I Am Not Your Negro finding a project that would make as much sense to me was challenging. James Baldwin’s words had basically firebombed every known field of bigotry I knew and had annihilated any attempt at deniability of the racist monster that lurks in corners of our societies. But despite the film’s success I found out that there were still vast territories of resistance, innocent stubbornness, and sheer ignorance laying around. I felt I had to tackle this, I had to address the even bigger picture. I had to find the foundation of it all and then construct it from the ground up.”
Other than I Am Not Your Negro, over the past half-decade, Peck has also directed a feature film on some formative years (roughly 1843-1848) in the life of a youthful Karl Marx, aptly titled The Young Karl Marx (2017). Equal parts political drama and buddy film (Engels appears to have been the better drinker of the two), the film presents a transformative period in Marx’s young life as he threw himself into the rising political ferment of mid-century Europe and began to make headway toward what would become his robust critique of political economy. Ever the people person, Marx’s utter contempt for his former intellectual comrades, the “Young Hegelians,” is on full display from the very start of the film. Frustrated with the political nullity that results from granting “productions of the human brain” pride of place in interpreting the world—in turn hopelessly muddling the material nature of all social phenomena—he proposes instead that a truly revolutionary theory must theorize upward from the ground of all social life: productive human relations.
To be widely accepted as coherent, one generally proposes to interpret some aspect of reality by first mentally conceiving it as physically stationary and conceptually immobile, what Marx and Engels referred to in The German Ideology (1845) as “dead facts.” If this form of thought sounds vague enough to appear basic or obvious, that is because it comes in many forms and travels under many names. In the Marxist tradition, it tends to be known as bourgeois idealism or, more specifically, subjective bourgeois idealism. In the introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx’s 1857 notebooks, he writes of how the English political economists mistakenly build their theories off the conceit that, in the first instance, individual producers are properly understood as “naturally independent, autonomous subjects” who enter relations with one another of their own volition, already fully formed.
Marx argues, on the other hand, that the individual cannot properly be theorized as a self-constituting subject, outside and above any earthly, socially determined relations; that is, without regard to how individuals actually produce and reproduce social life only together. Why? Simply put, because the individual is always already a “historic result” (i.e., a product of history, not of nature) and so does not qualify as sound historical “point of departure” with which to understand its own whole. Bourgeois idealism presents itself as the height of good sense, a direct way to perceive and interpret which wisely avoids intruding abstractions. Of course, the charge of abstraction is commonly raised against Marxism, typically by those who sorely misunderstand its unity of theory and practice. Against this, it must be insisted that the true abstraction is to interpret social life in a manner directly at odds with its own most basic feature: perpetual motion and constant change.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the task Peck lays out for Exterminate All The Brutes follows essentially the same theoretical-historical impulse that powered the young Marx’s trajectory. This would appear to be key to his project. A constitutive, materialist, and above all dialectical attempt to reach toward the steering wheel of history by unveiling the social relations of production (and, concomitantly, destruction) which propel its moving whole—from German Namibia to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, from the Ulster Plantation to the Battle of Omdurman, and yes, of course, also to Auschwitz. If, to reiterate, the historical cannot also be historicist, then it must then be real, all too real. It must be art, what the Martinican intellectual Aimé Césaire aptly called “poetic knowledge.” Peck knows this, and as such reminds the viewer that “this is a story, not a contribution to historical research.” In Exterminate All The Brutes, we have a radically distilled history of racial capitalism in the modern world. The confidently erratic docu-series joins together an array of visual forms (dynamic animation, scripted fictional scenes, voiceover, and archival footage) with alternating affective registers (humor, horror, calm, and fury). What emerges from the resulting wreckage is a powerful and unmistakably surrealist work of art.
We should be under no illusion that Exterminate All The Brutes sees itself as making a unique or fundamentally new contribution to the study of racial capitalism. Peck’s central interpretive claim—that slavery, genocide, and colonialism form the very ground of modern history itself—is a provocation with a long history, both inside and outside the political left. Césaire was simply one of the first to pose it in such visceral language, disgusting the postwar readers of his Discourse on Colonialism with the thought of being condemned to “chew over Hitler’s vomit.”
Peck’s contribution here is to bring these insights into an intensely visual medium. He repeatedly acknowledges his debt to transformative works written by three historians and personal friends: Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and Sven Lindqvist. The latter seems to have been particularly influential, seeing as Peck named the series after Lindqvist’s book, Exterminate All The Brutes: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide (1997). Peck repeatedly cites passages of Lindqvist’s writing, delivered in his raspy and calmly indignant baritone. Joseph Conrad’s famous work of colonial modernism, Heart of Darkness (1899), looms as the origin of the arresting titular quote. Predictably, most critics have severely overemphasized Conrad’s ultimate importance here. The novelist’s use seems mainly due to his role as a familiar signpost, widely known and, by this point, equally widely critiqued. It seems this overemphasis would confirm Césaire’s original suspicion that the North Atlantic world, still the seat of global empire, would be chewing over Hitler’s bile for some time to come.
“Empire is the time of History.”J.M. Coetzee; Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
In a characteristically surrealist vein, Exterminate All The Brutes seems intent on pushing the viewer’s mind to think more freely, unencumbered by the hard-wired rationalist demand to historicize. Its principal aim in doing so is to collapse the time of history onto the screen in front of us. At times it ranges wildly back and forth across the historical canvas, provocatively leaving distinctions aside in an attempt to authorize a synthesis that a purely historicist logic would insist on seeing only in fragments.
Of immediate note is the role accorded to the mid-20th-century experience of genocidal anti-Jewish violence in this story. As pointed to earlier, Peck’s placement of the Holocaust firmly within the plane of modern history (that is, of empire)—not apart, as an aberration—is not a new insight. Many tend to attribute this interpretation to Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), though a more careful reading would find that many leftist intellectuals and activists from the colonized world understood this brutal reality to be a “common European heritage” since at least the 1920s. In any event, as soon as they are introduced in the first episode, familiar images and archival footage of Nazi atrocities are immediately spliced together with similarly revolting images from Turkey, Vietnam, and Rwanda. Peck appears to be daring the viewer to split hairs over the differences between these scenes. What, after all, could possess a person to quibble over historical nuance when confronted with the overwhelming horror of piles upon piles of mangled human bodies? What monstrous impulse is this?
Similarly, the opening episode combines clips of American presidential inauguration speeches from Reagan to Trump, Obama, and Clinton. Collapsed on top of one another in this way, they all seem to be literally saying the exact same thing: extolling America’s “greatness,” America’s “timeless” mission, “our grand story of courage.” In setting them against shots of a vast and sunny cotton field with plants rocking softly in the breeze, the words are cracked from the inside out. Peck, ever the attentive narrator, says nothing—he doesn’t need to.
This method is further driven home in the second episode of the HBO series, titled “Who The F*** is Columbus?” In a scene set on a beach in Ahiti (Haiti) in 1492, native peoples stand calmly by the trees lining the tropical sand, watching in silence as a small rowboat with several armed white men and a priest come ashore with their swords, their Bible, and their flag. As the men survey the scene before them and the priest leads them in prayer, the Indigenous islanders confidently approach, wearing what appears to be modern beachwear. They make short work of the invaders. The white men’s ship quietly retreats across the horizon. We see it return not long thereafter, this time with an armada in tow.
This is certainly not the first cinematic reimagining of Columbus’s initial landing. Still, the bathing suits and undershirts worn by the native welcoming committee powerfully brings the scene to a point. The past is brought into the present; a future that soothes the nightmares of past generations beckons. Of course, we also know that a colonizer of no less renown than Ferdinand Magellan met a strikingly similar end on the beaches of the Philippines in 1521.
A specter haunts the scripted fictional scenes that pockmark the series, here as an overseer on a rubber plantation in the Belgian Congo, there as a murderous American military officer during the Seminole Wars, and again as some sort of race scientist in 19th-century London. It is the specter of Josh Hartnett, beloved heartthrob of early 21st-century cinema. Hartnett plays, essentially, the universal colonizer, the spirit of modern history incarnate. In an interview, Peck explains that Hartnett was chosen for this unenviable part precisely because he is both unquestionably American and also because he tends to be typecast as a “good guy.” We are not meant to be comfortable seeing him in this new role, murdering and pillaging, grimy and unkempt. It is unsettling.
“Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without him being aware of it, he has Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon[.]” – Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (1948)
A nagging cough follows Hartnett throughout the series as he colonizes history. Is he sick? Yes. His empty stare and his cold shivers suggest he knows it, too. Again and again, he finds his way to bodies of water, stripping off his clothes and attempting to cleanse himself. It is no use. Some things cannot be washed away.
What Exterminate All The Brutes achieves as a powerfully surrealist work of art stands out even more starkly when put in comparison with the recent Netflix historical docu-series How To Become A Tyrant, also released earlier this year. As does its counterpart, the series investigates tyranny, brutality, and genocide in modern history, albeit in a strikingly different manner. How To Become a Tyrant consists of six different episodes, each focusing on a specific historical tyrant—Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Stalin, Muammar Qaddafi, and Kim Il-Sung. Peter Dinklage, the narrator of Game of Thrones fame, shows off his irreverent Tyrion Lannister vocal style while highlighting the “lessons” these villains can offer to the aspiring demagogue.
The tone of the series is self-consciously tongue-in-cheek, vainly grasping at wry witticisms meant to amuse and break up the grim subject matter. A more traditionally “historical” series than its HBO photonegative, How To Become A Tyrant focuses far less on broader movements and themes, instead favoring a direct chronology and an almost exclusive attention to individual actors. These histories are wrenched from their respective contexts and patched together to create a clear-cut narrative about modern dictatorship, which quite literally has no firm basis in any specific history. Its stale liberal political vision arises directly from this idealist method. Hyper-attentiveness to specific characters requires that these histories are narrated in a vacuum, as simply the enactment of personal psychodramas—lurid details about vain eccentricities, the exorcism of personal demons, and the fulfillment of long-held grudges abound. Consequently, whereas Exterminate All The Brutes locates the decisive origin of modern tyranny, brutality, and genocide precisely within the Western political tradition itself, How To Become A Tyrant, in its constituent aporias and silences, identifies the crux of the issue as divergence from the Western model in general, and liberal democracy in particular.
Many sage academics, journalists, and pundits are interviewed in How To Become A Tyrant, offering their wise, historically informed explanations and prescriptions. In a particularly telling segment, the British journalist Guy Walters chides those viewers who might confidently tell themselves that they would never be charmed by Hitler’s charisma. “I promise you, you would,” he assures. So simple! The universal human, universally fallible. Nothing more to be said. Genocide, simply an accident of history, attests only to the flawed human character, our tragically fallen nature. Such thinking relies on an internal self-validating logic. If we are working with a theory bereft of a concept of the whole, of what makes the world move, of the building blocks of social production and reproduction, then, in the final analysis, social phenomena can only be explained by descending into the misty realms of the inscrutable mind. Always incomplete, such thinking cannot help but affirm itself with its unfalsifiable, individuated concept of the human divorced from specific material determinations.
The hyper-individualized focus of the series, along with its cleverly myopic distortion of the historical narrative, works to downplay the central issue of modern colonialism and the liberal world order it undergirds. In the episode on Hitler, for example, no mention is made of the emphasis that recent studies of the Third Reich have placed on either the genocides perpetrated against the Herero and Namaqua peoples during German colonial rule of Namibia from 1904-1908 or on the explicit lessons Hitler took from the United States’s brutally thorough system of racial hierarchy.
In a similar vein, precious little attention is given to the intensely destructive experience that the Korean War (1950-1953) plays in North Korean political thinking to this day. By most estimates, upwards of 80% of North Korea’s buildings were destroyed by American airpower. Napalm was extensively used on civilian populations, and roughly 75% of the capital city Pyongyang was razed to the ground. In a 1984 interview with the Office of Air Force History, General Curtis LeMay, former head of the Strategic Air Command, blithely estimated that roughly 20% of North Korea’s population was killed by the bombing campaigns during the conflict. Robert Neer, in his history of napalm in modern warfare, notes that no less an imperialist than Winston Churchill privately expressed misgivings over the sheer brutality of American bombing in North Korea. Absent this key context, North Korean political machinations and constant concern over American aggression appear almost entirely baseless, purely the delusions of a megalomaniacal ruling clique. It appears that liberal imperialism, ever industrious, works overtime to create its own exceptions.
The intensely chauvinist tunnel vision of the series leads to stark, almost comical ironies throughout. Madeleine Albright, career American diplomat and Secretary of State during President Clinton’s second term, is interviewed in the episode on Muammar Qaddafi to note that the latter “wanted the respect of the world while he was terrorizing everybody.” Albright is widely remembered for her cold approval of the Western-engineered regime of sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In a 1996 60 Minutes interview, she pointedly argued that the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who were estimated to have died due to sanction-caused food shortages were, simply, “worth it.”
Similarly, the series chides what it terms Qaddafi’s “exporting” of revolution in his financial support of anti-imperialist groups such as the Irish Republican Army, the Black Panther Party, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Polisario Front. The implication is quite clear. We are meant to understand this as the actions of an unhinged ideologue, rather than as the result of a political calculus designed to drum up popular support for Libya. Mostly concurring with Reagan’s famous denunciation of Qaddafi as “the mad dog of the Middle East,” the effort to psychopathologize Qaddafi stands in here for any sort of substantiative political analysis of Libya’s relations with the North Atlantic imperial core. As ever, vacating history of specific material determinations within the regime of global capital dismisses fundamental considerations vis-à-vis imperialism and racial capitalism. Having thus evaded analysis, the ground is prepared for the ideologically motivated arrangement of “dead facts” in the service of imperial apologia.
And if these things are true, as no one can deny, will it be said, in order to minimize them, that these corpses don’t prove anything?Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (1948)
It seems more or less a safe assumption that the motivations behind both Exterminate All The Brutes and How To Become A Tyrant lie in popular concerns and anxieties over the looming questions of the political present. We might note here the manner in which the solemn mantra “Never Again is Now” has saturated, and perhaps overpowered, much political analysis in recent years. The implication behind “Never Again is Now” suggests that current “illiberal” trends in global politics mark a departure from the norms of the liberal world order on par with the mid-20th-century experience of fascism. While the political vision inherent in How To Become A Tyrant would mesh quite tidily with such a notion, the historical thesis behind Exterminate All The Brutes diverges sharply: “Never Again,” it would appear, has always been now. The “state of the emergency,” to return to Walter Benjamin, is “not the exception but the rule.”
In the final moments of Exterminate All The Brutes, the camera passes over the fog-covered remnants of the Birkenau concentration camp in Oświęcim, Poland. Peck leaves the viewer with a line he has intoned several times before: “No. It’s not knowledge we lack.” One reviewer in The New York Times seems to have found this somewhat enigmatic and frustrating, speculating that Peck may be compensating for lack of clear conclusion or direct prescription. This confusion only makes sense if we believe that Peck has broken new historical ground, as it were. He makes no such claim. The “poetical knowledge” offered in Exterminate All The Brutes is meant instead to fill a gap that pure historical knowledge, by design, cannot. The corpses prove everything; they always have, and they point only toward a single conclusion.♦
Ilan Benattar is a freelance writer, book reviewer, and doctoral candidate in history based in CA. Find him on Twitter @blanienattar.