The dark side of democracy: autochthony and the radical right

Racialised and forced migrants are the spectre of the 'other' in the autochthonic dream of the 'pure' otherless universe which we must confront. This border-zone is our political as well as our analytical challenge, says Nira Yuval Davis
Nira Yuval-Davis
26 July 2011

In 1990 Nora Rätzel and Anita Kalpaka organised an international conference on racism and immigration in Hamburg, Germany. The aim of the conference was to bring to Germany international scholars and activists against racism in order to point out that what was happening in Germany at the time - especially against Turkish migrants - was not ‘xenophobia’ but racism. As the term ‘racism’ was associated in Germany with Nazism, there was an obvious reluctance to use the same terminology in ‘new democratic’ Germany. Xenophobia, in comparison with racism, seems to be almost excusable – a ‘natural’ tendency of people to be suspicious of anyone they do not know or understand. However, the organisers of the conference – and rightly so – thought that by contextualising what was happening in Germany in the 1980s in both German history and similar international phenomena, and ‘calling a spade a spade’, it would be easier to confront and struggle against what was happening.

I’m not sure that their efforts actually resulted in lessening racism in Germany, which reached new heights after reunification, but in terms of coordinating European wide anti-racist activism and policies, as well as in terms of the hegemonic discourse in Germany itself, this conference made a significant contribution to the growing acceptance that racism was the appropriate term to use.

This was so, especially because as scholars like Balibar (1990), Phil Cohen (1988), David Goldberg (1990) and others (Anthias & Yuval-Davis, 1992) have argued, racism should not be identified just with constructions of ‘race’, but can take place whenever there are clear signifiers of boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – whether it in terms of skin colour, accent, religious dress, etc. Racialisation discourse, in other words, can use any construction of ‘immutable’ boundaries for the purpose of its two alternative but most often complementary logics: of exclusion (ultimately genocide) and exploitation (ultimately slavery). Scholars like Martin Barker (1981), Taguieff (1985) and Modood (1997) talked in the 1980s and 90s about the emergence of a ‘new’, ‘differentialist’ ‘cultural’ kind of racism, which, while historically and discursively echoed with heritages of race, colonialism, cultural and religious wars, essentialised the unassimilable cultural ‘other’ as endemically inferior and/or dangerous.

Interestingly, these days, we see again the rise of the term ‘xenophobia’ when attempting to describe the common elements of the rising ‘new European Right’ - such as in the article on openDemocracy by Back and Rhys-Taylor. In this the writers collude with the ambition of the leaders of these movements to detach themselves from the ‘old Right’, discarding race, descent and even culture as primarily signifiers of ‘the other’, replacing them with notions of strangers and outsiders, who do not belong, as they do not share both loyalties and values with those who do.

When we examine the literature on ‘the stranger’ we can see that Simmel (1950) and Schutz (1976) established two different constructions of actual relationships of strangers with the communities in which they live - of deviance and of ignorance. But as Sarah Ahmed pointed out in her book Strange encounters, the 'stranger' is a fetish, empty of any concrete content and can be filled by the imagination of the racist ‘insider’- already there before actually encountering the stranger. So the important task is not just to establish that growing populist movements throughout Europe and beyond have been blaming ‘the strangers’, the ‘asylum seekers’, and above all – ‘the Muslims’ for all the miseries and the real and imaginary threats on their lives, but to situate this phenomenon both historically and globally.

To do this I would like to introduce the term ‘autochthony’ which Peter Geschiere defines as ‘the global return to the local'. While ‘old racism’ basically constructed ‘the other’ as essentially racially different, and the ‘new racism’ constructed her/him as essentially culturally different, autochthony is a racist discourse which uses origin, culture and religion as signifiers of immutable boundaries like other forms of racism, but its focus is spatial/territorial, a mode of what Immanuel Castells called ‘defensive identity communities’, except that these days it often applies to majoritarian as well as minoritarian community discourses.

Part of neo-liberal governmentality is to remove expectations from most people, let alone guarantees of long term employment in the same place, or even in the same kind of work, or of having regular holidays and sufficient funds to live on in their pension. Other elements of the ‘risk society’ (Beck 1992) follow, including housing and place of living, networks of friends and even membership in a family unit. All these push people into memberships in Castellian ‘defensive identity movements’. These anxieties by majoritarian members of the society are also important, however, for policy makers who are using the deprivation of migrants and refugees rights as an easy way to appease these anxieties, and to reinforce a weakening sense of national ‘cohesion’. The basic underlying political issue here, however, is what the boundaries of belonging are, and to what extent the construction of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ in this debate continues to be naturalised. This is the context in which the rise of extreme right autochthonic movements needs to be analysed.

The UN, in the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, has accepted autochthony as the French equivalent of indigeneity. However, given the way the term is often used in Francophone languages but also, for example, in Dutch, where the people are divided to ‘autochthones’ (those who belong) and allochthones (those who do not), I have been persuaded to follow Geschiere’s differentiation between the two. This is the reason why I cannot follow Ruth Wodak's use of the term 'nativist' in her article on openDemocracy. Indigeneity will remain the discourse of marginal racialised people in settler societies claiming rights, while autochthony will be used in relation to the discourse of privileged hegemonic majorities defending access to privileges and resources. However, I would argue that these two constructions interpenetrate each other and one cannot totally differentiate between them in many historical locations. Although, as is the case with other political projects of belonging that construct notions of ‘custom and tradition’ and claim that their version is the only true version, autochthonic political projects of belonging claim to be eternal and pre-modern, they are as selective and contemporary as other political projects of belonging which celebrate pluralism and the conviviality of difference.

Autochthonic political projects of belonging, however, are not only far from celebrating the conviviality of difference, but, as carriers of the claim of being ‘autochthone’ – ‘of this soil’, who really belong, they are not prepared to tolerate the ‘others’. They see in them a threat - which kind of threat or combination of threats changes in different locations – cultural, political, economic, genetic - and construct the relationship with them as a ‘zero-sum’ game: it’s either ‘us’ or ‘them’.

Geschiere rightly claims that ‘autochthony’ can be seen as a new phase of ethnicity, although I argue that in some sense it even surpasses ethnicity. While ethnicity is highly constructed and relationally and situationally circumscribed, there are limits to these reconstructions of name and history. Autochthony is a much more ‘empty’ category and thus more elastic. It states no more than ‘I was here before you’ and, as such, can be applied in any situation and constantly redefined and applied to different groupings in different ways. As Nadia Fadil in a recent IRR conference on Islamophobia, pointed out, in Belgium people of western origin like white Americans are not usually identified as allochthones.

On the other hand, a few years ago, a local theatre in my neighbourhood in London, the Arcola, ran a play called Crime and Punishment in Dalston which was based on dialogues the theatre director David Farr heard when he worked with local youth, which had to do with the enmity between Afro-Caribbeans, Turkish and Kurdish refugee communities in Dalson, in which the Afro-Caribbeans constructed themselves into the autochthones of Dalston . I heard similar discourses from some of my local black students when I was teaching the sociology of racism. The repudiation – accompanied by various ‘descriptions’ of the refugees such as dirty, lazy, and “have come to take our housing and our jobs” – was of a very similar character to the descriptions the white working class used in order to repudiate black people and their families fifteen or twenty years earlier. This of course is not a unique phenomenon, and the growth in gang warfare among different groups of youth from both majority and various minority groupings in most global cities can be seen as one form of expression of such autochthonic politics of belonging.

While the spatial/territorial notion of autochthonic politics of exclusion and belonging is very important when we come to understanding specific local geographies of fear, it is crucial when we attempt to understand the specificity of contemporary extreme right politics in Europe and elsewhere, whose supporters continuously argue that they are not racist, although they are very much against all those who ‘do not belong’. The British National Party (BNP), for example, which used to be identified with older versions of racism, now describes itself in the party's constitution as the party of ‘the indigenous people’ of Britain who just happen to be white, getting their so-called 'scientific' backing from the booklet by Arthur Kemp – Four Flags: the indigenous people of Great Britain’ - which claims that the genetic purity of the indigenous British people is higher than anywhere else in Europe (except that other similar parties in Europe make similar claims re their people).

On the other hand, in cases like the English Defence League, the organisation has formally both Jewish and gay sections and also includes Sikh, Hindu and Afro-Carribean members, something unimaginable in the older kind of extreme right organisations with neo-Nazi ideologies. For them, the line which separates between the autochthones and allochthones is different. As Trevor Kelway, the EDL spokesman, claimed: ‘An all-white group doesn’t look good. They can join the EDL as long as they accept the English way of life… those with multi-identities do not belong here...Stop the Islamisation of Europe!’ Interestingly, as we can see, the changes in the construction of the boundaries of belonging are not just ethnic and cultural but also sexual. The ‘pioneer’ of this change has been the gay leader of the Dutch rightist party, Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered in 2002. Another significant development is that these days three of the leaders of this kind of extreme right parties in Europe are women, signifying a wider change of gender politics among the ranks of these parties.

Autochthonic politics of belonging can take very different forms in different countries and can be reconfigured constantly. Nevertheless, like any other forms of racialisation and boundary construction, the discourse always appears to express self-evident or even ‘natural’ emotions and desires: the protection of ancestral heritage, the fear of being contaminated by foreign influences and so on, although, as Geschiere points out, they often hide very different notions of ancestry and contamination.

The discourse of autochthony is closely related to that of indigeneity, although, as we have seen in the case of Dalston and the EDL, it expresses a politics of belonging that can also be adopted by those who would not necessarily be considered by some as indigene. To be an indigene means to ‘really’ belong to a place, and to have the most ‘authentic’ claim to rights over it.

The discourse of the multi-local and international movement which has been claiming recognition of the rights of indigenous populations in settler and many other pluralist societies is being co-opted, as we have seen with the case of the BNP, by movements of hegemonic majorities who find themselves threatened and injured by various facets of neo-liberal globalisation before, and especially after the global economic crisis, which creates conditions of existential, physical, emotional and cognitive insecurity for a growing number of people, from the hegemonic majorities as well as from migrant and racialised minorities, in the North as well as in the South.

The claim of indigeneity by members of autochthonic political movements is being used as an exclusionary mechanism of governmentality, aimed at establishing a double sense of promise of security and retainment of entitlement, which is conditioned by the containment and fixity of imaginary homogenous bounded reality from which all those ‘who do not belong’ are excluded. Politically this can lead to demands to block migration, deny citizenship to those who are already here, deport, and in its most extreme form, exercise a policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’. In such a discourse, the immutable links of people, state and territory is formulated in its most racialised forms.

It is important to emphasise, however, that this phenomenon should not be seen as confined only to the West. When I visited the Gujarat in India in 2002 as part of an international feminist delegation to investigate the gendered effects of the inter-communal violence there, I repeatedly heard the claim by Bharatiya Janata Party supporters that the Muslims have no legitimate place in the Indian society, as they are not indigenous but rather came there as invaders 500 years ago. Even less surprising, such claims of indigeneity are common in post-colonial societies: among the recent and most virulent ones have been those promoted by Mugabe in Zimbabwe, as well as in other societies in the South torn by different forms of ethnic conflicts.

Moreover, they can also become major forms of contestations among groupings of indigenous collectivities claiming rights – so much so that it is not uncommon for AmerIndian groups to use DNA tests in order to prove that certain groupings of indigenous people do not ‘really’ belong but were displaced from elsewhere – it is not their ancestors buried in these place and therefore they cannot claim the use of collective resources such as mineral rights for the local indigenous people. Such political dynamics can easily explain the preoccupation of people in many locations with archaeology as well as with ceremonies of burial, whether it’s campaigning for museums in the West to return skulls and skeletons taken during colonial time, or Palestinians fighting for the right to be buried in the lands of their villages of origin (e.g Hajjaj’s 2007 film ‘The Shadow of Absence’).

Migrants, especially forced migrants, challenge the naturalised equation between people, territory and political community. Most develop practical, as well as emotional, multi-layered belonging/s claiming inclusion in the new territories and spaces to which they have migrated. Many, of course, are prevented from gaining spatial security rights where they live – they are denied permits to stay, to work and to gain formal citizenship. However, even if they gain these rights, their attachment to the societies from which they, or their parents and ancestors came from, do not usually disappear. The communication and transport revolutions of the age of globalisation have reinforced these tendencies. They have also reinforced what Michael Mann has called ‘the dark side of democracy’ - an impetus towards ethnic cleansing and autochthonic spaces which are ‘otherness free’.

Hannah Arendt (1943) and, following her, Agamben (1994) claimed that refugees – and I would add, other ‘people on the move’ especially the undocumented ones – embody the border-zone between the citizen and the human. All too often the human rights of people are respected only if they also have formal state citizenships, and even among them, there is local and global stratification among those who ‘really’ belong and those who do not. Migrants, especially racialised and forced migrants, are the spectre of the ‘other’ in the autochthonic dream of a ‘pure’ otherless universe which we have to confront. This border-zone is our political, as well as analytical challenge.

Nira Yuval-Davis's new book The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations, is published by Sage, London.

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