A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association


Précis for a Philosophy of Brutality

by Carlos Alberto SanchezMay 14, 2018

A recent headline reads: “Cartel Related Violence Results in Deadliest Year in Mexico on Record.” According to “official” tallies, there were 29,168 cartel-related murders in Mexico in 2017. But this number is hard to digest. We can thus take it in bite-sized pieces: that’s approximately 520 murders a week, 74 murders per day, or over 3 murders per hour—that’s 1 cartel-related murder every 20 minutes! No one would deny this is a problem—a problem of criminality, social policy, or as Mexico itself sees it, a problem of ‘public health.’ But, I would like to insist that it is also a philosophical problem for us all. Just as with atrocities in decades past, e.g., the Holocaust or 9/11, the sheer number of dead human beings calls on philosophers to consider the reasons for their happening, or, at the very least, it calls on us to think about how to think about the reality of the problem.

29,168 cartel-related murders in one year! How can we think about this number without forgetting its reference to actual human persons? We must begin with the reality of cartel violence, or narco-violence. In Mexico, this is an everyday, and all-to-common reality. It is common knowledge that narco-violence is responsible for a jump in murders between 2006—when Mexico’s war on organized crime officially kicked off and there were only 2,200 murders related to cartel violence—and 2017. By “common knowledge” I mean the ever-evolving cultural meta-narrative in which the culture of narco-violence, or narco-culture, and violent death are interconnected or in which narco-culture and those accounts of extreme violence that constitute the narrative are one and the same.

In order to grasp the reality of 29,168 dead human beings and not merely the idea of “over 29 thousand victims of cartel-violence” (and thus avoid de-realizing the dead) we must first understand narco-culture, which is that cultural modality that authorizes the extreme or hyper-violence ultimately responsible for the number itself. Technically, the term “narco-culture,” or “narcocultura,” refers to the cultural complex created by, surrounding, and produced by those involved in the business or practice of narcotics trafficking. So long as narcotics themselves are criminalized, their transport is likewise illegal, together with their production or cultivation, distribution, and sale. As a business, the transnational designs of narcotics trafficking make it extremely profitable; it is a $64 Billion per year business. The people who oversee this business, who participate in it, or propagate it are thus criminals or criminally complicit—these practitioners form an amalgamation commonly known as “el narco.” The existential practices of el narco, which involve techniques, practices, and operations that surround the business of narcotrafficking produce its cultural profile. That is, the essential illegality, obvious economic incentives, and the vital risks that constitute this practice ultimately form the material substratum of a more generalized culture, the “culture” of el narco, i.e., narco-culture, with its corresponding codes of conduct, styles of life (reflected in music, fashion, theology, and death-rituals), and relational forms of those who participate in it.

The 29,168 dead ultimately serve to validate the essential reality of narco-culture, its power over human life, its reliance on violence for the achievement of its ends, and the myths that sustain it and promote it (disseminated in music, journalism, movies, and social media). These three aspects (power, violence, and myth) are intimately tied and feed into one another. But narco-culture is also an economic and political phenomenon: it is fundamentally rooted in a liberal economic philosophy of consumption and competition and is protected by a politics of corruption and greed (this, of course, at the level of the State). These essential and political aspects of narco-culture are captured by the narco-myth (think: Sicario or the Netflix hit show, Narcos) and are ultimately manifested in a violence that is hard to grasp and even harder to articulate. Images of disembodied heads atop concrete highway dividers or headless naked bodies hanging upside-down from ordinary bridges are accompanied by simple headlines that read “just another day in the narco-war,” a journalistic practice that suggests that the violence of narco-culture is already the normal. This is because narco-violence is not just violence, but it is a hyper-violence, a violence that, while found in the horizon of what we think violence is, is more than violent. It is a violence that overflows its concept. I call it brutality.

The brutality of narco-culture represents a real, situated, human crisis. It cannot be beyond philosophy to inquire into the nature of acts that, in their violence that is more than violent, dehumanize or de-realize persons, turning them into ideas or, worse, into disposable objects; it cannot be beyond our purview to ask about a real, contemporary, culture where decapitations, dismemberments, and the casual dissolution of bodies in vats of acid are normal occurrences. It is, thus, a crisis that calls for a philosophical intervention. For example, considering that narco-culture cannot be understood apart from the hyper-violence that outlines its cultural profile, the concept of “violence” itself fails to capture the excesses that define the narco “form of life.” Brutality, as a type of objective or intersubjective (and thus not subjective) violence that is more than violence, better captures the normality of those occurrences that are beyond words. It is “brutality,” that helps us account for the otherwise unspeakable ways in which persons are objectified, disposed of, and forgotten in the machinery of narco-culture. The brutality of narco-culture traumatizes our very conception of personhood, politics, and our morality.

Ultimately, philosophical thinking about narco-culture will be a meditation on human sociality itself, on the concepts that constitute our reality, and on the politics which govern it, but one that takes as its point of departure an extreme, excessive, brutal and unspeakable (i.e., “beyond words”) violence which is radically situated, contemporary, and essentially rooted in modern day consumerism, supply-demand economics, rationally articulated code of ethics and cultural rites. It is, finally, a universal phenomenon that, while not familiar to many of us, even if only hours away beyond our southern border, is always already a possibility for us all.