"Is there an option to go beyond racism?": Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein on Race, Nation, Class
This interview was originally published in Balibar/Wallerstein’s “Race, Nation, Class”: Rereading a Dialogue for Our Times, and is published with the kind permission of the editors.
Bojadžijev: There are three things I would like us to discuss. First, what were the reasons for organizing the seminar series and the idea of Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities? The second revolves around the conceptual ideas underpinning the book, which is based on an integral analysis of the three core historical constructions “race”, “nation”, and “class”. And the third point is the reception of the book until today regarding its political impact and the achievements that have come out of it.
So, what motivated the seminar series you organized together in Paris in the 1980s? To what extent were the seminars planned regarding their chronology and methodology, and how did you decide to use these three core categories as the main points of focus? In which way did the discussions from the seminars enter the book and how did the co-authored dialogical format emerge?
Wallerstein: We met in 1981 at a conference that was organized in New Delhi. We became friends, and over lunch one day we decided to do this kind of seminar. Initially we had planned to do one year only; it was on the topics of racism and ethnicity, and that one was a big success—people came and were interested. So, we did a second year and then a third year, and basically, the idea was to have extended discussions which were led each time by a paper prepared by someone in advance. That worked very well; it was precisely the beginning, the moment when people were raising questions about what had seemed traditional ideas about “class”, “race”, and so forth, and it was the right moment to do this. But, having done it, the original idea, I suppose, was to publish a book as a result of each year’s seminar, but the papers were of unequal quality, and then you can’t always get people to submit them on time. So, it occurred to us to forget about the others’ papers and to write about our own papers, since both of us had written papers for the seminars. The book, therefore, brings together the discussion between Étienne and me of the intellectual problem that is posed by the relationship “race” has to “nation” has to “class”. So, I think that’s how it came about.
Balibar: I think it’s important to add that we had not planned, or not fully planned the sequence, of the themes in advance.
How would you describe the political conjuncture at that time which made thinking through these historical constructions necessary?
B: We began with “race”, which, in a sense, remained the hidden and the most visible issue. That was immediately after the new fascist French political party emerged that grew even more prominent later. That the Front National had won its first critical local elections was very striking to most of us, a very worrying phenomenon; more was to come. So, of course, they already had the same political themes as now. The question of Islam was not yet central, but the issue of migration, so-called invasions from the formerly colonized people, what is now called—and I find this disgusting—reverse colonization.
It was already very racist at the time. The migrants in France were a very persistent theme. So, I said to Immanuel, what bothers me is racism because it’s politically worrying and meaningful, but also because I feel somehow theoretically disarmed or unable to address this question efficiently. I suspected that he had more precise ideas because, of course, the issue of migration—it wasn’t being called the post-colony yet—had a central function in Immanuel’s understanding of the world-system. But I was trained, not in an entirely traditional brand of Marxism, but still, on this kind of issue, we had nothing to say. I asked Immanuel, what was it that he found interesting, or what did he feel that he would like to work on at this moment. And I remember you said, Immanuel, “ethnicity”. So, we found that in a sense we had the same interests at the same time, and so were able to approach these questions from different academic backgrounds and in different intellectual trajectories and that was fortuitous.
This is how the idea of the first seminar was set up. The seminar went very, very well. It was crowded. The discussions were very interesting. At the time, you must realize that, in France, to the best of my knowledge, there was no place where this question could be discussed from an interdisciplinary standpoint, bringing together historians, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, and so on.
Immanuel’s problematic is a perfect framework into which to bring this. So, at the end of the year, we asked each other: what are we doing now? I said I was very willing to continue, but that we could not keep to the same subject. Immanuel, whom I suspect had some plans in mind, said we should proceed with “nation”; then in the third year we continued with “class”. But in my memory, there was no plan at that time of writing a book called Race, Nation and Class; it was an idea that came to us only in retrospect. But, again, these themes or issues were not all of equal interest to our colleagues. “Race” was a big success; “nation” did not go too badly. The least successful seminar of all was the one on class, believe it or not. It’s very different today I think, but the questions of capitalism, as a social system and the class divisions and antagonisms—there were discussions about inequalities and exclusion and therefore, inevitably, “class”, but far less intense than today. It was less well attended, but at the end of all that, we had material.
What prompted us to do the book as we did it was the fact that we also used the seminar as a kind of indirect instrument for a conversation among us. I enormously benefited from that, because I learned to discuss and understand capitalism in a completely different manner through my reading and by listening to Immanuel. But others came from very different backgrounds. A friend of mine, who unfortunately died some time ago, was a French feminist philosopher, Françoise Duroux. She contributed a very interesting and provocative paper on a question hotly debated at the time among French feminists namely, “Should we apply the category class to gender?” which also has political consequences. And later, I’m guilty here; I used her ideas in the paper I wrote, but her paper had not been published, and she resented that very strongly. She said to me, “You see, once again, a woman talks at the seminar, she brings in interesting ideas and the guy who leads the seminar, a man, of course, picks up what he finds useful and he’s the one who makes it public.” And she was right. She was absolutely right.
W: Yes, but there’s one more thing to say about class: you have to remember that there was a period right after the Second World War, from 1945 on, when everyone was a Marxist, I mean more or less, and especially in France.
B: Everyone on the left.
W: Everyone on the left, yes. And then there was a relatively sudden shift whereby people seemed to steer away, saying “Oh no, that’s old stuff”, and they removed the concept of “class” from the discussion. So, putting out this book was an attempt to restore the discussion of “class”, which had as I say in fact disappeared, especially in France, but not only in France, Italy, even Germany.
In some ways, this book is less simplistic than a lot of the discussions we hear today. Introducing these difficult categories, which were ignored largely throughout the 1980s from an interdisciplinary as well as integrated perspective, on an international, almost global scale, was akin to providing oxygen to Marxism, to renew it. The investigation into each of the main categories carves out their contradictory and unstable condition, their limitations and dependencies—this is still an absolutely appropriate approach even today (which at the same time makes rereading the book so rewarding and calls for its re-editing for our times). Can you elaborate on this conception of your integrated approach?
W: Well, in a sense, we were trying to re-open the discussion of all three categories from agreed-upon analyses which we came to think of as somewhat simplistic. These areas were open for an attempt to re-utilize them for more useful theoretical and political discussion. All we wanted to do was to get people to discuss “race” and “nation” and “class” and to talk about how the three of them fit together. That discussion is still going on today; in fact, it’s going on more strongly than when we published the book.
The big message of the book is that “race” and “nation” and “class” are categories that should not be analysed separately, that’s the first thing, and they are three different pairs of glasses looking at the same phenomenon. If your analysis is from the angle of one or the other, it misses the point. So, the whole issue is, what is the relationship of “race” to “nation” to “class”, and the answer is, it’s a kind of 80 percent overlap. If you self-identify or analytically identify others and use racist terminology—I shouldn’t call it racist terminology—class terminology—you get the same picture, but not quite. It makes a good deal of difference to your theoretical and to your political analysis, which pair of glasses you want to use. And my answer is that at different times I want to use a different pair of glasses. So, if I say the working class, which is an old Marxist category, supposedly proletariat, it turns out that the people who are proletarians by traditional definition, are not the whites from the dominant class, but the blacks or people of colour who are suppressed, etc. And so what’s missing when one deals with them separately is not to see that 80 percent of the people who are proletarians are in fact an under-group according to “class”, or “race”, or “nation”. And so, number one is that they’re all the same but not quite, and two, one has to decide how one opens the door. And the way in which one decides to open the door has enormous consequences for how you think about the issue and how you act upon it—and this is not something that can be settled permanently. So, what is today a useful “class” category or a useful “nation” category, may not work tomorrow, as it is constantly changing.
B: But at the same time, the categories are not “equal”. They are all ambiguous, as the subtitle says. But aren’t they problematized in different ways and to different ends?
B: The overlapping of the categories and the necessity of overcoming a rigid and mechanistic understanding of either “race”, “class”, or “nation” and studying their interaction—this is more or less what people today would call intersectional theory, in the broad sense of the term. But that leads me to two something else: When we discussed the title or rather the subtitle of the book—bearing in mind it was published in French first, the English edition came out very soon after that, but the first edition is the French—Immanuel had proposed, correct me if I’m wrong, the subtitle which was Ambivalent Identities—and I said that I didn’t like the word “ambivalent” so much, it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, and I proposed Ambiguous Identity.
I think, in fact, the two adjectives are not unrelated. If you insist that identities are ambivalent, you think of class identity, national identity, race identity, what you essentially suggest to the reader is that the effects can go in very different directions. Nationalism, of course, is the nation. Nationalism is not a stigma. Nationalism is the organic ideology of whichever political and social movement or institution creates or defends a nation. So clearly, you look at anti-imperialist liberation struggles, which for both of us were essential elements in our intellectual and political consciousness. Immanuel had been directly involved in Africa and other places in what would become the third-world emancipation struggles, and I had been awakened to political consciousness because I was a student at the time of the war of independence of Algeria. So here is an example of nationalism that is not only progressive but without which you have no liberation, no emancipation. It’s from a left point of view a necessary and a positive factor. But, at the other end, you have what in English is called jingoism, you have all sorts of xenophobic forms of nationalism in imperial nations like France or the US, and others—these are the most visible aspects which go in the absolutely opposite direction. So, can you say the same about “race” to some extent? Can you say the same about “class”? Perhaps. Immanuel gave the example of certain forms of class consciousness in the centre, which include, in fact, racist and sexist dimensions. So, on the one side, none of these identities is rooted in the objective structures of capitalism, the world-system, imperialism and Euro-centrism, and on the other side, they are identities that are created subjectively. All of them are ambivalent from the broad historical point of view, something that traditional Marxism has had enormous difficulties understanding.
But “ambiguous” is also, in my view at least—and we agreed on that in the end—a necessary category because of intersectionality. If you look at concrete collective identities, and if you take into account movements, forces that become active in politics and society, they’re never purely class identities or national identities, or race or ethnicity. Of course, that was one of our elements, the cultural dimension of so-called new racial discourses. You never have something that is pure; you always have something that is ambiguous. If you look at things from that point of view—and I use the term intersectional deliberately—there are several things that are dramatically missing, at least missing in the title. And the blatant, the most visible is gender.
That’s another equally decisive identity—one whose objective foundations are perhaps even older than capitalism and patriarchy—and, of course, possesses decisive, subjective dimensions and consequences. If you look at the book, the only one of us who takes it into account is Immanuel, not me. I say something, which remains important in my mind, about the fact that racist schemes or genealogical schemes in modern bourgeois nations are closely linked to the function that the bourgeois state and the bourgeois society grants to the family as a social structure. Through those references, I implicitly include gender or sexual differences, but that’s very indirect. Immanuel, however, explicitly says in the book that there are two great anthropological structures, which function to produce hierarchies and stratifications among the workforce or the labour force in the capitalist world-system, and these are “race” and “gender”. He draws a very powerful parallel or analogy between the two.
Yes, the introduction of the term household structure is very helpful in this respect. Something that gets lost in debates about intersectional matters is particularly the combination of the household structure and the reproduction of the family within the genealogical scheme regarding inheritance and property. I think these aspects are more present in the book than one would expect from the title.
B: We are not using the same conceptual framework. But yes, the fact remains that we didn’t dare place it as one of our key objects, and that would have perhaps put us in a somewhat more uneasy situation because we would have had to include different feminists in the discussion. Some of them came, of course, and I want to mention one woman by her name—Colette Guillaumin—whose work on the racist ideology I heavily relied upon, it’s absolutely crucial that Guillaumin was—she died not very long ago—a very powerful feminist. Her understanding of the kinds of naturalization, of social differences, or essentialization of gender, and race identities or characters, were part of one single intellectual, theoretical project, which was very important, at least for me. We had contradictory points of view on “nation”, “class”, and even on “race”, but those could have been handled. Contradictory points of view on gender and sexuality for us, I’m afraid, we’d never be able to handle.
It’s good that you’re saying that. I would like to focus on a term you have already implicitly mentioned by referring to Althusser—“overdetermination”. It seems you have in some ways already elaborated overdetermination by looking into these three historical categories.
B: I think that Immanuel practices overdetermination, but doesn’t have significant use for overdetermination [laughs].
W: He’s a philosopher.
B: It’s not philosophy, Immanuel, that’s just theory.
W: It’s a matter of training. As opposed to reality, we are all formed in certain ways. And if you go through a programme called philosophy, you read certain things which you would not read if you go through another programme.
B: It’s true, but our understanding around Althusser or understanding of philosophy always lacked a lot of empirical foundation or basis that we would’ve needed, although we read as much as we could. So, it was very much oriented towards the social sciences at the same time. But it’s true that I inherited from Althusser these abstract categories of overdetermination and also sometimes underdetermination, which he’d produced essentially to say something about political conjunctures, revolutionary conjunctions. When revolutions succeed or fail, it’s not just because the laws of capitalism determine inevitable consequences; it’s because some heterogeneous social and ideological factors are crystallizing in what he would describe as a moment of crisis.
To Immanuel’s work I was introduced as he was among a group of social scientists with a Marxist background. He was borrowing from Braudel and others and introduced the idea that capitalism is not just a mode of production with its internal tendencies, but that it’s a global world-system where colonization is central and where you have antagonisms and differences between different types of economies and societies, although in the same system. So, after reading the first volume of Immanuel’s great history of the capitalist world-system I came to the hypothesis that this was the framework in which abstract categories such as overdetermination could be applied in a productive and meaningful manner.
Since we’ve talked about the integral analysis a little bit, can you say something more about the discrete definitions or determinations of those terms? You somehow suggested that in the 1980s, when you had this discussion, there was a crisis of these terminologies. Terms like “race” and “racism” were changing. Considering the situation historically against today—has the idea of racism changed, and if so, how?
W: Well, we have rhetoric confusion. Just today I read in the New York Times or on the web, somewhere, that our dear US president Trump—trying to defend himself against various things—said, “I am not a racist”. So, he seems to think that to call someone a racist is an insult, and he denies that he is one. It’s a kind of deference to anti-racism theoretically. So, noticing people are doing that, it seems to me that on the one hand, you could say that’s very good because he has to say, “I’m not a racist”, and he wouldn’t have felt that way fifty years ago. On the other hand, we know that’s nonsense, he is obviously of the most virulent and the most shameless variety, but he has to defer. So, from a long-term point of view, anti-racism has achieved something if it forces people like Trump to deny that they are racist.
So, regarding the very use of the term “race” or the very use of the term “nation”—everybody, well, mainly Trump—has made “nation” their main category: “Make America Great Again”. He went to the United Nations, gave a speech and said, “I’m for making America great again, I’m for defending our nation, and I’m sure the rest of you are too, all of you out there, you’re all doing the same thing.” And in a sense, he’s right. Everybody is, at the moment for a whole series of good reasons, very protectionist and even those who are anti-protectionist in rhetoric. A good example is Canada—the country now has an official rhetoric of anti-protectionism, but it’s also bringing a case to the appropriate body, the World Trade Organization, complaining that the US is stopping the entry of Canadian lumber. So, Canada wants to defend its right to make or to restrain the intrusion of others into its economic sphere.
B: Turning to your point, I think with “race”, here, the symmetry has to be somehow broken, at least from my point of view. “Race” on one side, “nation” and “class” on the other side, are different problems, maybe. I say that, and immediately it comes to my mind that you could object to that, “race” is a very plastic and fluid category. If you look at things from a historical point of view in which you need to include, of course, institutions, representations, semantics, pseudo-scientific discourses, and so on, you realize that “race” is not a category whose meaning can be fixed. Of course, from Immanuel’s point of view this has to do with the fact that the capitalist world-system, as it was built on colonization and later, post-colonization, includes very strong hierarchies and categorizations of populations based on their ethnic origin, which includes all sorts of visible and invisible characters.
But that doesn’t mean that the category “race” always means the same. I continued to work on this issue, and I collaborated with others. So, at some point, I became aware of the fact that we all use “race” in official discourse—and it remains the case in most of the anti-racist discourse. And that was relatively recently officialized in the wake of the Second World War when the United Nations was created, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written, and when UNESCO famously published two successive declarations. It’s a strange history, because the declarations of “race” and “racism” were elaborated under the aegis of UNESCO, therefore the United Nations, by a group of social scientists and biologists. So, they published the first in 1950 and, immediately after that, they published a second one in 1951, which did not officially cancel the first, but in fact introduced very, very decisive qualifications. Why was that? Because the first had been written essentially by anthropologists (Lévi-Strauss famously was one of them), but others as well, Mexicans and Americans; and the second one was a reaction of the biologists who declared that “race” is not a biological category, it’s a biological myth. But that is not true, there are biological differences that matter, even if they are not to be described in the silly way in which Social Darwinians put it; I mean the categorization, when you are in the US, and you apply for a job, sometimes you have to fill out a form. It’s officially for equality and anti-discriminatory policy, but you have to cross boxes: Caucasian, African American, or Hispanic. What are these? What they wanted to include were three forms of discrimination. But all of them are grounded in pseudo-biological categories, in anti-Semitism leading to the Shoah, the extermination of the Jews and other groups by the Nazis, in the colour bar in the US, the racial difference of blacks or negroes, as they were called at the time which, essentially, was a legacy of slavery, and all sorts of colonial racial hierarchies and discriminations in French or British colonies.
So that’s a moment of apparent stabilization of the category, and if you go back to earlier periods when these stratifications emerged in the Spanish colonies and so on, even the word “race” doesn’t mean the same; it’s applied, for example, to the aristocratic races. And if you continue to the present you see the progressive emergence of something that some scholars, and I more or less contributed to that, would call a “racism without races”, which means that discriminations are no longer based exactly on the same criteria, but the discriminations are there. I think in the global world we now inhabit, where many social structures are transformed, “race” is not going to disappear just because such a mixture of populations is coexisting. It will perhaps become intensified, especially to create antagonisms between different types of workforces.
So, as for “nation” and “class”, I was not shocked, but embarrassed by the fact that Immanuel, when his friends and colleagues would describe what they called anti-systemic movements, would include socialism and nationalism, therefore class-based and nation-based movements in the same category, more or less. And then immediately after that, he insisted that in different parts of the world the articulation is not the same, so socialism seems to be more important as an anti-systemic movement in the North and nationalism more important, although not unique, in the South. And to me, that was very disturbing, because I didn’t want to put “class” and “nation” in the same category as social structures, and now I’m increasingly becoming ultra-Wallersteinian, or post-Wallersteinian, which is a break with Althusser and classical Marxism.
W: Classical Marxism had enormous trouble with the concept of nation.
B: Exactly, so they always wanted to see the “nation” as a superstructure and “class” as a more basic structure. And Immanuel is right; both terms have an institutional dimension, and they are stretches of the capitalist world-system, which are antithetic in a sense, never smoothly converging, but both just as important as the other.
And would you say this is the case today?
B: That’s where we might quarrel. In the most recent form of our collaboration, Immanuel describes what he sees as the general crisis of the capitalist world-system today and its consequences for all political strategies. I did not believe that capitalism was in a general crisis; I thought it was a moment of mutation. Immanuel might respond that this is a verbal distinction. But one of the implications from my point of view is not that “nation” and “class” are going to disappear, but that they are progressively having a different function in this system.
As historian and sociologist at the same time you invested a dialogical book on the question of racism. In Germany the term “race”—and this is something that has a conceptual impact—is not used, because of the particular history; it is taboo. The German translation of the book is the only one that has Rasse, Klasse, Nation in the chronology and not Race, Nation, Class. At that time, even in the 1980s, people thought of the combination “race”, “nation” and then “class” as problematic, that to put “class” in the middle would disrupt “race”.
W: The very concept of “race” is linked inevitably with the reality of a hierarchy. If you have a hierarchy—some people over here are considered more privileged, ought to have more privileges, more money, more of everything—then you want to know why and you’ve got to come up with some explanation of what justifies the hierarchy. And the minute you do that, you’re a racist. You just use different terminology to do that, but that’s why it doesn’t disappear. As long as you’re in a hierarchical system, you’ve got to be in a racist system. Racism is simply the justification for the legitimacy of some people having a better standard of living than other people in multiple ways, regarding housing, schooling, income, and everything—their social respect. Some people are doing better than other people and what justifies that, and you come up with some justification, they have the right to do this because … it’s inevitable, and you’re now into racist terminology.
Yes, I agree. However, this dislocates the problematic to another one. Here, the racist explanation of hierarchies is reified and then displaced to a different problem—the problem of capitalist exploitation, of property. What is very intriguing in your book is the treatment and the productivity of that racist terminology as one that doesn’t rely on, or refer back to, a racist knowledge production that explains why we think racism exists.
B: That is very complicated.
Or to put it in other terms, your approach to racism, as a “generalized anti-Semitism”, renewed and radicalized the insights of critical theory that started from the assumption, as Adorno put it, that “antisemitism is the gossip about the Jews”. Therefore, we will not be able to explain anti-Semitism by the presence of the Jew, but rather how “the Jew” is invented and reproduced by anti-Semitism’s taxonomies. And these taxonomies not only rely on a set of racialized entities but rather on how they are overdetermined by other historical constructions such as gender relations, the historical forms of the “nation”, as well as by the accumulation of capital and the quality of class struggle. Each becomes the translating medium of the other, to arrive at a rigorous understanding of “racisms without races”. Thus, racism assumes a distinct form in its own contemporary time marked by many contingencies—nationalism, modes, practices, and discourses of anti-racism, the modes of exploitation, etc.—across the globe.
Two questions arise from such a distinct form of racism. First, if there is/shall be a unity of terms, how are we to understand the dynamics of the variety of different forms or formations of racisms, historically contingent, variable, situated? And second, if we take overdetermination as the procedural or methodological basis of understanding racism, we may become stuck in an unending cycle of mutual determinations and reciprocal constitutions without any exit in sight. Faced with such a situation, we may have to return to our arsenal of old concepts and ask: “‘determination’ or ‘contradiction’?” Or, is it a matter of determining the principal contradiction? Or to put it provocatively, is “class” the external and determining factor of racism and nationalism? Or, is it the historical contingency, since we cannot but have those historical concepts of “race”, “nation”, and “class”, as well gender relations, as the guiding categories in reality?
B: That’s what I wanted to address. Returning to what Immanuel said; and I’m not suggesting that Immanuel ignores anti-Semitism, but it just applies more or less directly to two of the classical forms of racism included in the UNESCO declaration. Those are colonial discrimination of “subjected races” and, of course, apartheid, the colour bar, the legacy of slavery in the US, but it simply doesn’t apply to the case of anti-Semitism. In the case of anti-Semitism, you don’t have this, at least not explicitly; you almost have the opposite. It’s not the case that Jews are to be kept in an inferior racial position; it’s the case that they are seen as internal enemies, as people who are better than the others in becoming capitalist professionals, and so on. So, they are seen, psychologically speaking, more as a threat at the same level.
W: It’s no different from Trump’s appeal: that’s the situation of people who in reality are an underclass and who are resentful of this, and decide to denominate those who are oppressing them by some category, such as “intellectuals”. So you’ve got the use of the concept of “race” there as a method of the under-group deciding to push their way up a hierarchy by invoking this. Now, that seems to me that we’re talking about anti-Semitism classically. Who were being anti-Semites? You have the idea of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, these clever people who are suppressing you, many will turn against them, and that becomes anti-Semitism.
B: Yes, I agree. But it’s more about—one could put in place all sorts of brackets and quotation marks—suppressing or even eliminating an enemy or competitor. I think many dichotomies or distinctions are proposed in order to classify and organize different forms of racism. When that becomes too complicated, then you tend to forget some of the general forces or tendencies that Immanuel is underlining. On the other hand, there are some that cannot be eliminated, they form part of the reason in our understanding or description of the function of racism, for the political function of racism, in today’s world; Immanuel would insist more directly on the economic function and, therefore, on the articulation of “class”.
And I would insist more on the articulation with “nation”. And therefore the link between racism, xenophobia, and a certain understanding of the national identity as a homogenous category has to do with the fact that you need to take into account the cultural factor in the definition of “race”. Even if you don’t make Nazi Germany the paradigm according to which everything has to be understood, which was the tendency, understandably, in post-war discourses (of Adorno, Horkheimer, and others) you have to take into account that certain forms of racism lead to extermination or elimination more generally. And other forms lead to keeping the structures and forms of exploitation and hierarchies as stable and as immutable as possible. So, of course, there’s a lot of overlap between all of that. That’s what Arendt taught us. If you look at what colonization was in Africa in the nineteenth or twentieth century in Congo and similar places, you don’t only have exploitation, but also extermination or an extremist dimension. There is, of course, a grey zone, but there are different poles. I’m not sure we can completely explain anti-Semitism or describe it with the same categories.
Today Islamophobia is growing in our country, in Europe, and now also in the US. But perhaps it was always there, it was just not a central issue, whereas now because of 9/11 and other things, ideological needs of Trump and his likes, this is becoming the case. But in Europe, it’s been central for two or three decades now because of, of course, the growing population of migrants from Turkey, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and so on, plus other cultural factors; Islamophobia is a central issue for anti-racism. And it’s very difficult here in France; it is a terrible country for that, also because of our form of state secularism, plus the absolute denial and refusal to critically reflect on our colonization in the past in North Africa: these have all led to a virulent Islamophobia, which is proud of itself, and which denies its racist characteristics.
Which are the strands of research or the missing aspects of the analysis present in RNC that you have continued to pursue, or tried to rework? How would you rewrite the book today? Would you include other core categories?
B: Yes, something that is not in the book is religion. I think that neither of us at the time, or at least explicitly, considered that it was important.
W: The new Archbishop of Paris, Monsieur Au Petit, confirmed in an interview published in Le Monde that the new taboo word is religion. To speak of God is not considered something one should do; and when he recently spoke to an audience made up mostly of Muslims they applauded him, telling him because “at least you speak about God”.
B: Yes, yes, yes. Now, what are the taboo words?
W: I find it interesting that Pope Francis in his discourse—I don’t say he doesn’t speak of God—but he speaks of refugees and migrants, so this is a different brand of Catholicism.
Not very successful in Eastern Europe, I would say.
B: No, not very successful, but all the more remarkable because one of his predecessors came from there, which induced a turn in the political function of the church.
Well, there’s one relevant question about religion.
B: I don’t know if anyone wants to speak about religion.
The rise of a new right and also authoritarian regimes across the globe pairs up with very different right-wing religious movements. If you think of India, Russia, Turkey, even of the US, or smaller states like Poland, Croatia, Serbia, it seems there’s an unholy liaison or alliance between right-wing forces that are racist, right-wing nationalist movements, and also an authoritarian form of domination with a nationalist rhetoric. How do you understand the current situation in light of this development of retreating to nationalism, retreating to a religiosity with a very strong right-wing rhetoric? How is this going to unfold?
B: Just a remark on that point: there is something that bothers me, and I have no answer to that. When we insist, when we observe that religion is now more visible, and perhaps even objectively playing a greater role in political changes and conflicts, this is not purely limited to Europe. India is a terrible case. And after all, in the Eastern European region, it also played a crucial role not so long ago, and it remains so. It’s murderous.
B: So, enlightened people like us, historians, philosophers, would perhaps like to see this as a kind of regression. So instead of entering a new world in which there would be all sorts of conflicts based on economic interests, education, political ideologies, once again, we are buried and dramatically caught in religious hatreds, which seems to be something of the past. But, apparently, this is not something of the past, but rather of a past that has a bright future. Why is that? In the logic of what I said before—and it’s the logic of our book, too, I believe—maybe it is that the categories are flexible and transform themselves, we might be tempted to say, and I have this temptation sometimes to say that in fact, this is a new brand of nationalism. It’s a new class if you like; it’s a new discourse which hides, in fact, nationalist rhetoric. So often, this religious discourse is used in a nationalistic way, to create, to exclude, to purify the collective body, to exclude foreigners, who are becoming scapegoats and targets as religious enemies; Christians in Pakistan, Muslims in Europe, and so on.
So, that’s the logic of nationalism. But sometimes I also become more critical of my intellectual training and, of course, perhaps I’m under the influence of some post-colonial or post-modernist discourses we have today. Some time ago a French journalist, Jean Birnbaum, published a book, which was relatively successful, in which he said that the left doesn’t want to know and to hear about religion—it is a taboo for them. They do not realize how powerful a factor religion was in history and that is, in fact, to put it briefly, because historical materialism and economic determinism are blinding them, etc. So, I would not adopt that language squarely, but I am not sure that religion today is not just a cover name for nationalism. That is a big, big question to me.
But in some ways, you could argue that your book contributes to secularism or a secularization—to a secularization of an understanding of racism and nationalism, even, of class relations.
B: Next seminar.
Okay, good. One last question. Do you think there is an option to go beyond racism?
W: I think the capitalist system is in structural crisis and it will come out of it either as a new hierarchical system which will be ultra-racist or—which is one thing that’s never existed historically ever—a relatively egalitarian system. So, yes, it’s possible, it’s possible that we will go beyond racism, but it’s unpredictable. Ask me that question in forty years from now, okay; by then we will either have it or not, because we will be in this bifurcation which I see us in. It will be something much worse or much better. And I think, unless you want a long discourse now, I had better stop there. But I think that the answer to your question: Will we ever go beyond racism, is “Maybe”.
B: I sometimes make fun of Immanuel’s prediction that the future will be either worse or better, which I said is not very different from a tautology. But in fact, I like his idea of bifurcation very much, except I tend to believe that bifurcation is not in the future, but the bifurcation is now.
W: That’s right, we’ve been in it for a while.
B: Immanuel has a list of political issues, which he presents as immediate or middle-term political objectives that are crucial for the left and would also make it possible for something like the global left to crystallize and become an active factor, and, therefore, have the historical tendency of a world to go either one way or the other. It’s a simplification, but it’s a dilemma. And anti-racism or the critique of every form of racism, including anti-refugees, anti-migrant, xenophobia, that’s all included. Now the last thing I want to say is, the future is not predictable, the future is not inevitable. If we believe in the kind of post-capitalism that, worst case, is a more unequal and oppressive system, which could succeed the forms of historical capitalism where we will have racial discrimination and hatred and violence as a central feature, then, this becomes all the more urgent.
For Immanuel, that’s Lévi-Strauss more or less, human diversity is always a problem for humans. Human diversity means we are not all the same, and these diversities are not fixed, they are ethnic, they are linguistic, they are perhaps religious in the broad sense, there are differences of sexuality, and that will never disappear. It is a problem. How do we handle diversity? You cannot resolve the problem by just invoking universal principles of equality and liberty. It is not inevitable that human diversity will become instrumentalized to build hierarchies and form racist oppression; but, from my point of view—and I don’t say that the classical idea of communism would ignore that—there was a huge underestimation of the fact that this will remain a problem. Maybe the question is whether diversity is bound to remain somehow conflictual.
W: Yes, and also that it is not inevitable. It remains forever in the future, that we categorize people in one of ten different ways, give the category names, say, you belong to that group, or you belong to that group, and then what is the relationship with the group, one is higher, one is lower, and you’ve got racism.
B: Absolutely, but the point in our study and others as well, is that you cannot just overcome these categorizations, which go along with hierarchies, discrimination, oppression, by changing the psychology of people. There are objective conditions.
You seem to suggest that diversity precedes conflict, but maybe it’s the other way around?
W: Diversity is simply the recent rhetoric, recognizing the reality of racist categories within the economic system. We come along and say, “No, diversity is a good thing”. And that means we have to do something to improve the situation of group “X” vis-à-vis the larger society, by assisting them in various ways. But that’s a rhetoric of reformism, improving your situation by doing “X”, which doesn’t eliminate racism.
Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me; it has been a pleasure.
B: Thank you. I guess we’ve never had such a long and detailed conversation about our common enterprise. It’s terrible to see how much time has passed, but it’s good to see that it leaves traces, friendships, problems, and contact with people like you.
W: Thank you for organizing the meeting.