Source: E-Flux Journal l #84 - September 2017
Unavoidably (because I am a German citizen), I look at the Trump situation from the European perspective. And so I will try to situate the Trump phenomenon in the broader context of the contemporary nationalist movements that are on the rise in Western countries. The European tradition knows three main lines of political thought: liberal, nationalist (or fascist), and socialist. Thus, it is a bit different from the American tradition that differentiates between liberals and conservatives. Today, it is normal in Europe to speak about neoliberalism as the ideology of capitalist globalization. The conflict between neoliberalism, or globalism, and right-wing nationalism seems to define contemporary politics. In all recent and upcoming elections, including the American presidential election, the second round of the French presidential election, and the coming election in Germany, this conflict has dominated the public space.
Right-wing nationalist parties are becoming increasingly influential in what was once called Western Europe—in France, Holland, Belgium, and also in Germany—even more influential than they’ve been in what was once called Eastern Europe. These parties are time and again compared with fascist parties from the European 1930s and ’40s. And, indeed, they use similar racist, xenophobic rhetoric. Like their fascist predecessors they advocate a “conservative revolution” directed against the main ideologies of the twentieth century, namely liberalism and socialism, as well as against the political institutions that are historically related to these ideologies. Their propaganda is also directed against similar groups inside their own countries: globalized, cosmopolitan elites and immigrants.
However, the new right is different from the classical fascist movements that were aggressive and expansionist, striving for world domination and trying to establish a universal new order. The neofascist new right is, on the contrary, defensive and protectionist. The ideology of the new right, including the Trump movement, can be seen as a return of the territorial into world economy and politics. The post–Cold War era was a period of globalization—and, to use a Deleuzian term, of deterritorialization. The main symbol of this era was the rhizomatic and at the same time global structure of the internet. Today one is often reminded that the corporations and organizations that operate the internet have certain addresses in real, offline territories that are controlled by certain states. As such these internet corporations and agencies come under suspicion for representing the interests of these states. They come to be regarded as instruments of surveillance, propaganda tools, and sources of fake news. Instead of constituting a virtual space beyond state borders, the internet is seen today more and more as the privileged battlefield for interstate information wars.
This is only one example of the reterritorialization of politics that we experience now. The second—and, actually, the most important—example is the fact that migration and, especially, immigration have became the central point of public concern. It is safe to say that it is primarily the attitude towards immigration that structures the contemporary political landscape—at least in Western countries. The anti-immigration politics of the contemporary new right parties is an effect of what can be characterized as the territorialization of identity politics. The main presupposition of the ideology of these parties is this: every cultural identity has to have its own territory on which it can and should flourish—undisturbed by cultural influences from other cultural identities. The world is diverse and should be diverse. But world diversity can be guaranteed only by territorial diversity. Mixing different cultural identities on the same territory destroys these identities. The world becomes uniform—boring, depressive. And even more importantly, in becomes unprofitable for the tourist industry, which promises to international tourists precisely the combination of traveling to a different territory and encountering a different culture.
Right-wing propaganda sees globalized, deterritorialized elites as the main enemy of this reterritorialized, diversified world order. Elites—the famous 1 percent—are accused by this propaganda of being interested in only the global financial markets and not in the fate of the populations of their countries. They’re accused of being indifferent to the well-being of these populations, to the technological infrastructure installed in their territories—one of the big themes of Trump’s campaign. Globalization is seen as creating a line of division inside every individual society. A small minority profits from globalization, but the majority is left behind. This majority becomes additionally endangered by immigration. Global trends—financial, technological, and informational—destroy traditional lifestyles and professions and make acquired skills and cultural habits useless—skills and habits that have been practiced for generations. This loss of traditional professions and work habits becomes further aggravated by the influx of immigrants with different cultural backgrounds and lifestyles. The elites do nothing to stop this—thus confirming that they are not interested in the fate of ordinary people. So these ordinary people begin to feel and say that the elites have betrayed them and that it is time to do something about the problem. The only question is: What has to be done?
Historically, we know of only two answers to this question: socialism and nationalism. But also from a logical point of view, there are no other possible answers. Let us revisit the picture that I just tried to paint. Globalization presents itself in two forms: rich globalized elites and poor immigrants. If one sees one’s own country as a victim of globalization, one has a choice: to unite with the poor immigrants against the rich elites (the socialist solution), or to unite with the rich elites against the poor immigrants (the nationalist solution).
It is obvious that—at least at the moment—the populations of Western countries have rejected the socialist choice and tend to accept the nationalist choice. The reason for this is also pretty obvious: it is an effect of the victory of neoliberal globalism over socialist internationalism at the end of the Cold War. Indeed, during the historical period after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western left was systematically destroyed—first of all the Western communist parties, and then social democracy with its social states. All the socialist models—radical or moderate—were proclaimed to be economically inefficient, historically discredited, and obsolete. So during recent decades a certain consensus was formed: socialism is economically inefficient and, generally, bad. And this is the actual reason for the nationalist, neofascist choice: after neoliberal, anti-socialist propaganda managed to persuade the wider population that socialism is economically ruinous, the socialist choice became blocked—and only the neofascist choice remained possible. Of course, this is not the result that the theoreticians of neoliberalism anticipated. But they failed to anticipate it only because they overlooked a few key things. Let us now consider these things more carefully.
What is the actual difference between socialist internationalism and neoliberal globalism? Socialist internationalism is based on international solidarity, whereas neoliberal globalism is based on global competition. In the context of global markets, everybody competes against everybody—every individual competes against every other individual, every country against every other country, and so forth. Of course, socialism—being based on solidarity—is inefficient in the context of competition. So if one believes that competition is what people should do, socialism is automatically discarded. And this is indeed what neoliberal ideology believes. Of course, this ideology also presupposes that the competition is fair. But who is responsible for the fairness of global competition? Such an institution does not exist. Of course, American politicians say time and again that they feel themselves responsible for global affairs. But then the suspicion emerges that they interpret this responsibility in a way that serves their own interests, to the detriment of the interests of the others.
And what is fairness actually? Is competition fair when it is reduced to market success? Maybe such competition is unfair because it favors a certain human type, a certain cultural identity, a certain way of life based on economic success. Maybe it would be a good idea to protect people who have cultural identities that do not fit so easily into the global competitive framework—help them and defend them, maybe even do so through institutional and military coercion. For example: What happens when American commodities are not so successful and the American workforce is inadequately trained? Then the state can say: buy American and hire American. (Kaufe nicht bei den Juden—do not buy from the Jews.)
Here, the way from neoliberalism to neofascism becomes clear enough. And this way is very short indeed. Both neoliberalism and neofascism believe in competition—this is what distinguishes them from international socialism. Neoliberals tend to think that they will always be the winners of this competition. The losers will be always the famous Other. Liberals are ready to preach recognition of the Other, respect for the Other, etc. But it seems that they can hardly imagine a situation in which they themselves become these Others. I remember listening to a talk by a liberal Berlin professor on German TV, around the time that a right-wing movement against the immigration policies of Angela Merkel started. He said that Germans should accept immigrants because they will always remain in the lowest sector of German society—and thus will not present any danger to the majority of Germans. However, the right-wing German protestors were not so sure about this—and it was precisely this uncertainty that moved them towards the radical right. So one can safely say that the desire to change the rules of competition comes from the uncertainty that these rules are fair—where “fair” is mostly understood as favorable. Thus, Trump says time and again that the trade deals between the US and other countries are unfair—and here “unfair” simply means unfavorable to the US.
In the US, the notion of cultural identity and, in general, identity politics is traditionally related to minority politics. The goal of minority politics is to defend minorities from cultural, political, and economic domination by the majority—the domination of the weak by the strong. So in America, identity politics is traditionally regarded as leftist politics. That is why it seems surprising that the white majority initiated an identity politics from the right. However, the reason for both kinds of identity politics is the same. Today, the US does not feel strong enough, being confronted by competition from countries all over the world, such as China and Mexico. This feeling of weakness is what Trump embraced and exploited. It was especially interesting to see his performance during the debates with his Republican competitors. All of them praised America and everything American at every opportunity: “the greatest people on earth,” “the greatest civilization in human history,” “a shining city on a hill.” Trump alone spoke about everything American as disastrous, catastrophic, and disgraceful—airports, highways, inner cities, wars, and peace treaties. He presented the US not as a historical winner but as a historical loser. And that is how he captured the hearts and minds of so many Americans—not by celebrating American supremacy, but by raising the specter of America’s ultimate defeat. Here, American identity was presented as a losing identity, the whole global system as a means of destroying the US, Americans as the primary victims of the post–Cold War order they themselves created, and American elites as traitors selling out the US on the globalized market. The results of the election show that a significant portion of the American population also sees the US as a power in decline—and sees itself as a victim of recent historical processes. The US thinks of itself as an unhappy country, even a masochistic country, having been exploited and ripped apart by everybody. Here, the question of saving and guarding American identity becomes urgent—and identity politics becomes truly neofascist because it begins to address not minorities but the whole country.
This shift of identity politics from the left to the right is less unexpected than it might seem. First of all, in the European tradition the notion of cultural identity was always the basic notion of right-wing politics. Secondly—and more importantly—the possibility of this shift is opened by the logical structure of cultural identity insofar as this identity becomes connected to the ethnic origin, gender, or sexual orientation of the individual. Here, identity politics produces a phenomenon that can be called “vertical solidarity.” The notion of solidarity is historically connected to the struggle of the exploited classes against the exploiting classes. Thus, in the context of class struggle, solidarity was always “horizontal solidarity.” It was solidarity among the oppressed, directed against the oppressors. In the Marxist tradition, class was defined economically, through its role in the development of the productive forces. According to this tradition, a worker who makes a fortune ceases to be a worker and becomes a representative of the upper class. Horizontal solidarity with a particular person becomes annulled when this person leaves his or her class. The authentically leftist notion of identity is class identity.
But, of course, things are not so simple when cultural identity and the status of oppression comes to be inscribed into the bodies of the oppressed. Solidarity among women was dictated by their unfavorable economic and social position vis-à-vis men. Solidarity among blacks was dictated by their unfavorable position vis-à-vis whites. But what if a woman becomes an entrepreneur, or a black person becomes a politician? Should other women or blacks break their solidarity with them? On the one hand, this female entrepreneur and this black politician have changed their position in the class struggle, moving from the side of the oppressed to the side of the oppressors. And it can be argued that their class ascension does nothing to change the fate of other women or other black people. Indeed, it would be wrong to see in such class ascension signs of the social or economic improvement of women or blacks as a whole. But on the other hand, if somebody with a certain identity rises to the top, it means that they change what one can call their “identity rating.” Theoretically, all identities are equal, but practically, different identities have different ratings—they are related to different expectations for social and economic success, different assumptions about their bearers’ social status. This is the point where horizontal solidarity transforms into vertical solidarity.
Is it easy to show how this shift from horizontal solidarity to vertical solidarity produces fascist politics. Benito Mussolini is a good example of this shift. He started his career as an international socialist. However, at the beginning of World War I he changed his orientation—and gave an interesting explanation for this change. He wrote that in analyzing the situation in Italy, he realized that the absolute majority of Italians were poor. Only a small minority—1 or 2 percent—were rich. So the shift from being an Italian socialist to being an Italian nationalist did not change a lot: the difference between these two positions concerned only a small portion of the population. It was obviously better not to reject this small portion but instead co-opt it into a greater nationalist movement, so that rich Italians could also contribute to the well-being of the Italian population—and strengthen the position of Italy in international competition. Thus, Mussolini did not see the shift from socialism to nationalism as having much importance. Hitler, for his part, spoke about his ideology as “national-socialism.” The idea of solidarity is kept intact, but this solidarity becomes the vertical solidarity of one ethnic-cultural community competing with other ethnic-cultural communities. In other words, the concept of solidarity is subjected to the concept of competition. That is why fascism remains compatible with capitalism, which is based on the concept of competition. Today, we also have two major political forces in the West: conservative liberals and the nationalist right. Both think in terms of competition—but liberals want only economic competition, while nationalists are ready to impose the conditions that they believe will allow them to, if not win, at least not lose.
Cultural identity is seen as a major asset in such a competition. Indeed, as Michel Foucault has shown, it is primarily so-called “human capital” that makes an individual truly competitive. According to Foucault, human capital can be defined as the sum of habits, skills, and norms that an individual inherits from their family and immediate milieu.1 It is precisely this human capital that is meant when one speaks about cultural identity. That is why there is such a defensive attitude towards immigration. Immigration is seen as a force that destroys particular cultural identities and atomizes society, leading to generalized homogeneity: every country begins to look like every other country. Cultural diversity gets lost. In the right-wing European tradition, such a strategy of homogenization through immigration was always associated with Americanization. Today one can also find in the right-wing press a conspiracy theory according to which the current immigration crisis was consciously created by the Americans. According to this theory, the US destroyed the Middle East with the goal of creating a flow of immigrants towards Europe. In this way, European national identity will be destroyed: all cities, including Paris and London, will eventually look like American inner cities. American fast food and mass culture will triumph over the more sophisticated but also more culturally rooted European cultures. That is also why people on the right were so surprised by Trump’s victory. The majority of Europeans always saw the US as the hegemonic power behind the project of globalization—and were shocked to see that this power was becoming uncertain of itself.
Here it is important to realize that the definition of the identity of a person has nothing to do with the how this person identifies himself or herself. Identity, as it is currently understood, is not a subjective attitude but a genealogical or sociological fact. The identity of a person is defined by the identity of their parents and by their place and date of birth. Of course, somebody born, for example, as Jewish or German can reject their identity. But in the eyes of others, such a rejection would only confirm and reproduce a certain pattern of self-denial that is already historically well known—and perceived as being typical for these identities. One has no power of definition, no sovereignty over one’s own identity. The production of identities is always the work of others. The current popularity of the notion of identity has to do with the proliferation of identity documents, like passports and birth certificates, and also of other bureaucratic forms that allow society to become informed about the genealogy of individuals—and, thus, also about their identity. The internet has made this genealogical information much more widely available than ever before. Today it is relatively easy to find out one’s genealogical past. The contemporary notion of identity is dependent on global networks of information and applied to individuals insofar as their genealogies are documented in these networks. And under the conditions of the informational age, almost nobody can escape genealogical control.
Genealogy is closely related to ecology. The reproduction of certain kinds of human animals—human animals with the same identity—requires the sustainability of the biotopes in which this reproduction takes place. That is why the thinking of rightist parties is not so much cultural or economic, but ecological. These parties expand ecological concerns to include human animals, and try to organize particular ecosystems in ways that will favor the (re)production of human bodies with certain identity characteristics. And as with other animals, the main concern here is the stability of these ecosystems, their defense against intruder-animals that could destroy the already existing ecological balance. One might understand this defense of particular ecosystems as an interruption of the global flows of goods, capital, and people. But this is not quite the case.
The widespread interest in territorial diversity and difference is an effect of the expansion of global cultural markets and, especially, of tourism. The contemporary consumer of culture is interested in the diversity and authenticity of cultural markets. Here, the notion of cultural identity plays a central role. Individual cultural products are valued when they reflect the cultural identity of their producers. Otherwise, these products are perceived as inauthentic. When traveling to France, tourists want to experience something uniquely French—and they are disappointed when they see a Chinese restaurant or a McDonald’s. The (re)production of bodies with a particular identity is related to the production of certain cultural goods that have a global rating. That is why rightist parties try to keep certain identities intact and their ratings high and competitive. In this sense the new rightist parties are perfectly compatible with a contemporary neoliberal globalization that lets human animals with different identity characteristics compete on the global scene.
Accordingly, immigrants are rejected not as “people with a different identity,” but rather as agents of the “big world” in which all kinds of identities disappear. In Brussels, I often hear my Flemish friends say that their main problem with immigrants is that they prefer French to Flemish. I’ve heard something similar in Germany—among many other things, immigrants are made responsible for the Americanization of Germany, including the everyday use of English instead of German. Along with the fear of the disappearance of different kinds of animals and plants, one becomes concerned about the possible disappearance of the German or Flemish human animal. In European countries there is a lot of talk about the necessity of “integrating” immigrants into the respective national cultures. But it is obvious for everybody that the opposite process is taking place: the influx of immigrants speeds the integration of local European cultures into the Americanized, globalized, English-speaking world. Immigrants are perceived (and resented) as the agents of empire; again, their arrival in Europe is seen as a US conspiracy. Anti-immigrant affect is, actually, anti-imperial affect. And this affect is not new—in fact, it was the main motivation for the creation of the European Union.
In this sense, it is fitting that one of the creators of the European institutions that still form the foundation of the EU was Alexandre Kojève, who, from the end of WWII until his death in 1968, represented France in the early diplomatic efforts to create a unified Europe. Kojève wrote the first laws that regulated tariff policies in Europe and influenced the further development of the Brussels bureaucracy. However, Kojève’s most important contribution to postwar politics was his project for a new Latin Empire.
As Kojève wrote, the Latin countries—especially France—could not easily find a place in a world dominated by a communist Soviet Union and a protestant United States. So they needed to create a Latin Empire on the basis of a union among France, Italy, and Spain—with cultural links to the Arab countries of the Maghreb and to Latin America. This empire was to have only one goal: to protect the way of life of the Catholic—or rather post-Catholic—Latin cultures. Here Kojève proposes a project of cultural biopolitics, or let’s say, cultural ecology: human animals of the Latin variety should be allowed to live their traditional way of life because only then will they be truly happy. The role of the imperial European bureaucracy should be to protect this way of life from the aggressive and expanding empires of the Soviet Union and the US. This is a project that is not based on any specific future promise, on any specific ideology, on any historical mission. Instead, its goal is to secure the reproduction of a way of life that has its origin in the past.
Before becoming a politician, Kojève was a philosopher. As a philosopher he proclaimed, already in the 1930s, the end of history—by which he actually meant the end of ideologies. According to Kojève, the end of ideologies turns humans into animals. In the famous footnote 6 in the first edition of his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, Kojève asserts that after the end of history, nature survives. Kojève goes on to refers to Marx in the footnote, who predicted that the historical realm of necessity that opposes man to nature and one class to another will be replaced by the realm of freedom, which will open to mankind the possibility of enjoying, in Kojève’s words, “art, love, play, etc., etc.” in harmony with nature. However, in a note in the second edition of the book, Kojève was more pessimistic, conceding that the disappearance of historical man would actually make traditional notions of art, love, and play obsolete:
Hence it would have to be admitted that after the end of History, men would construct their edifices and works of art as birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs, would perform their musical concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas, would play like young animals, and would indulge in love like adult beasts.2
But more importantly, with the end of history, the human animal loses language, which is the only medium of wisdom; discourse, or Logos, disappears:
Animals of the species Homo sapiens would react by conditioned reflexes to vocal signals … What would disappear, then, is not only Philosophy or the search for discursive Wisdom, but also that Wisdom itself. For in these post-historical animals, there would no longer be any “[discursive] understanding of the World and of self.”3
For Kojève, European mankind was already post-historical mankind: pacified, without true ambition, incapable of sacrifice—a society consisting not of humans but of human animals. One can say that what we have here is an early version of the postfascist project. It has certain traces of the fascist concern with keeping specific cultural identities intact. And it presupposes vertical solidarity among members of the same cultural identity. However, Kojève believed that the Latin Empire would be only a first step towards the worldwide, universal, and homogeneous state that Kojève associated with socialist, or rather communist, society.
And this is precisely the point at which the new right-wing protest parties emerge. The ecological protection of the European way of life seems to collapse—the bureaucrats of the European Union lose the trust of the public because of their overly liberal orientation. Of course, liberals are against protectionist, isolationist cultural politics. When liberals speak about culture they mean cultural information—and its free flow across borders. The right-wing parties, on the contrary, understand culture not as a sum of cultural commodities or information about cultural events. Culture for them is rather a certain way of being in the world—the way of being into which a child is born and by which its attitudes, habits, and behavior patterns are formed. This process of cultural formation takes place way before this child becomes an internet user, content provider, and cultural consumer. When the right-wing parties insist on keeping intact a certain cultural identity, they mean this everyday, habitual, “non-formalized,” ecological sense of culture—which has nothing to do with the production and distribution of cultural commodities or the circulation of cultural information. However, even if there is no common understanding of culture shared by liberals and nationalists, their points of view are easily compatible on the economic and political levels. Indeed, economic liberalization and globalization on the one side, and cultural nationalism on the other, are not mutually exclusive—precisely because cultural formations function de facto as preconditions for the effective participation of individuals in economic and political competition. That is why the combination of cultural globalization and extreme cultural conservatism defines the politics and art of our time.
So one can say that both neoliberal ideology and neofascist ideology celebrate diversity and difference but de facto produce cultural uniformity. Neoliberal ideology believes that global diversity should be present in every individual place on earth. But that means, of course, that all places become alike because they present the same set of diversities. (Like the supermarkets full of diverse commodities that are similar all around the world.) This uniformity is criticized by the new right, which believes that true diversity means that different places have different cultural characteristics. This idea seems seductive to many people. However, there is one problem: it can be realized only through mechanisms of control and repression. And these mechanisms are similar all around the world—even if the cultural identities that these mechanisms protect are different. One tries to protect Polish, Hungarian, or Indian cultural identities. They are, of course, very different—however, when one begins to look into the practices of their conservation, one is impressed by the uniformity of these practices. And this uniformity is precisely what the populations of these different places are primarily confronted with in their everyday lives. Diversity, meanwhile, can be experienced only by global tourists.
Globalization inevitably leads to global uniformity—and the resistance to globalization also leads to global uniformity. If this is so, why is contemporary politics, be it neoliberal and neo-rightist, not ready to accept this fact? Why does it continue to insist on difference and diversity? The reason is again the fact that the will to uniformity is associated with socialism—and after the end of the Cold War, everything related to socialism is taboo. To illustrate this point, let me mention a text that was written at the beginning of the Cold War and that treats precisely this point. In his “Notes towards the Definition of Culture” (1948), T. S. Eliot speaks about the perspective of universal and homogeneous culture as an inevitable perspective.4 Eliot is a conservative author and his notion of culture contradicts the understanding of culture as a sum of cultural goods. He understands culture more or less in the same way as contemporary rightist parties do—as an ecologically defined biotope for the reproduction of different kinds of human animals. At the same time, he does not believe that the protection of such biotopes can be effective. And he also does not believe that this protection is beneficial.
The reason for this skepticism is Eliot’s analysis of a shift in patterns of migration. Earlier, individual tribes and small ethnic groups, he writes, migrated in their entirety—so that they brought their culture, their way of life with them. Later, however, migration no longer happened on the level of the whole Volk. Instead, migrants were individuals who left the centers and original areas of their culture—and thus did not transport their culture in its entirety but mixed it with the culture of the populations among which they lived.5 Eliot speaks about this new type of migration in relation to the phenomenon of colonialism. He worries about the influence of Europeans on the sustainability of non-Western cultures. However, today migration is more associated with the movement of people from non-Western countries into Western countries. Thus, for contemporary Europeans, the worries that were formulated by Eliot become even more acute.
But Eliot does not believe in the possibility of stopping migration and protecting the European cultural biotope. He writes:
For if we content ourselves with the ideal of “European culture” we shall be unable to fix any definite frontiers. European culture has an area, but no definite frontiers: and you cannot build Chinese walls. The notion of a purely self-contained European culture would be as fatal as the notion of a self-contained national culture: in the end as absurd as the notion of preserving a local uncontaminated culture in a single county or village in England. We are therefore pressed to maintain the ideal of a world culture, while admitting that it is something that we cannot imagine.6
Now one has to ask: Why is such a culture unimaginable? Eliot answers this question by rejecting all efforts by the “world planners” of the Hegelian-Marxist tradition to create a world state. In the spirit of the beginning of the Cold War, he accuses “our Russian friends,” as he writes, of the desire to eradicate all cultural differences and create a “uniform” world culture that would dehumanize humanity.7 These accusations glorify the historical past in which the humanity of mankind manifested itself in conflict, competition, and rivalry. Basically, it is a kind of Nietzschean aversion to the idea of a pacified, post-historical, socialist humanity that motivates Eliot to proclaim world culture to be an unimaginable project. It is the same aversion that today unites nationalists and liberals in a common celebration of human capital and creativity. Today we are back in the nineteenth century—witnessing a combination of globalized markets and localized cultures, of the internet and Marine Le Pen. And as in the nineteenth century, the only alternative to this combination is the socialist one, which aspires to expand the ecological protection of culture to the whole world. But it seems that this alternative needs some time to become re-actualized in global political practice.