Alain Badiou has history on his side when he claims that “the intrusion of any identity predicate into a central role for the determination of politics leads to disaster”. He has in mind those ‘identity predicates’ which have worked and which continue to work to exclude others: ‘Jew’, ‘black’, ‘Indian’, ‘Arab’, ‘Muslim’ and so on. More than just prejudice, a politics so focused reproduces or transforms the social order, never for the better.
Take anti-Semitism in modern Europe. The diaspora ‘Jew’, always outsider and thus intruder, constantly socially out of joint, came to represent an inassimilable excess which could never be incorporated into the social whole. As Slavoj Zizek has argued, the Jew came to embody social antagonism as such—that disruptive and destabilising element which supposedly prevented the capital and labour from living without conflict. Class struggle was simply displaced onto the Jews, who came to be seen as the source of all social pathology. The solution was temptingly simple—eliminate the Jews to restore social harmony.
Today ultra-right-wing parties promoting policies based on the all-too-familiar mix of extreme nationalism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism, as a reaction to what they see as the open-border policy of the EU, are steadily gaining ground across Europe. While this, in itself, is clearly a cause for concern, it is their populist appeal to racist sentiments which poses the greatest danger to the political mainstream. As the extreme right tries to cloak itself in respectability to attract the right kind of media attention, so the temptation for mainstream parties to displace resentment about austerity on to economic migrants from within the EU or refugees from a war-torn Middle East becomes almost overwhelming.
In France we can see the effect of the growing popularity of the Front national (FN) under the leadership of Marine Le Pen on establishment figures like Nicholas Sarkozy, who recently won the race to lead the centre-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP) and thus contest once more the presidential election in 2016. With the FN eroding UMP support, Sarkozy fought a campaign which sometimes veered into ultra-right territory.
He agreed to repeal the same-sex marriage law introduced in 2013 and talked about stopping all medical aid for immigrants. He unwittingly explained that he had appointed Rachida Dati, daughter of north African migrants, as justice minister in 2012 because “with an Algerian mother and a Moroccan father, it made sense she could talk about criminal policy”. Which tells us what his ex-advisor Georges-Marc Benamou already knew—that the former president “had few political hang-ups about flirting with extreme right-wing themes ... public order, the ostracising of foreigners, the Roma, xenophobia”.
Rather than confront the injustice of austerity, as is happening in Greece, the political class elsewhere is compounding it by redirecting public anger about the cuts on to the least powerful
In a similar fashion, by provoking public fear about EU immigration, the UK Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, has had a transformative effect on British politics in recent months. With all the mainstream parties now taking a more critical stance, immigration has moved to the centre of political debate—based on the largely unexamined assumption that it is a serious issue which needs urgently to be addressed. The fact that immigrants from Europe have generally fitted well into British society and made a positive contribution to the economy is simply swept aside, as indigenous discontent—stemming from unemployment, job insecurity, low pay, the ignominy of wage top-ups, systemic benefit disqualification and delay, and increasing inequality all round—is projected on to Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians, Roma and so on.
Attitudes to immigration are undoubtedly hardening across the political spectrum under the impact of UKIP, as evidenced by the recent proposal from the prime minister, David Cameron, to deny unemployment benefit to newly-arrived Europeans and require them to leave the country if, after six months, they have failed to find work. Cameron also wishes to deny tax credits and access to social housing for four years to those Europeans working for low pay in the UK.
With the prospect of a hung parliament after the general election due in May, Cameron has refused to rule out a deal between his Conservatives and UKIP—the party he once described as a bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. In a television interview he declined to be drawn on whether he would offer Farage a top post in any new administration and, rather than make a blanket comment about UKIP, would only say that the party “had some issues”.
When Farage seized on the recent bloody events in Paris, blaming them on an enemy within purportedly created by a failed multiculturalism, he was roundly condemned for politicising, in a racially divisive manner, essentially criminal acts. Yet while Cameron distanced himself from the comments, he refused to say whether he agreed with Farage’s critique or with the critics of the UKIP leader.
Race to the bottom: the UK communities secretary, Eric Pickles. Flickr / m24instudio. Some rights reserved.
The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, recently wrote to Muslim leaders asking them to “explain and demonstrate how faith in Islam can be part of British identity”. The implication of the question was not lost—Harun Khan replying with another: “Is Mr Pickles seriously suggesting, as do members of the far right, that Muslims and Islam are inherently apart from British society?” Pickles’ question reminds us of the ‘Jewish question’ which figured so prominently in pre-war European politics, especially in Germany. It was plain then that this was never anything other than a racially motivated provocation with political intent. In other words, there never was nor will be a ‘Jewish question’ as such. And, in the same way, there never was or will be a ‘Muslim question’, as Pickles worryingly seems to suppose.
Striking a chord
The rest of Europe shows the same tendency—the ultra-right striking a chord with increasing numbers of the electorate by mobilising dubious notions of a religiously-based nationalism, in response to what they present as an existential threat posed by immigration and multiculturalism. Meanwhile middle-of-the-road politicians, often themselves becoming increasingly authoritarian and intolerant—take Hungary, for example—look on and take note. Rather than confront the injustice of austerity, as is happening in Greece, the political class elsewhere is compounding it by redirecting public anger about the cuts on to the least powerful: the ‘illegal’ immigrant and the ‘bogus’ asylum-seeker.
The predicates might change but the bad politics doesn’t. What it connotes is not just social instability and not just in Europe. The social system is breaking down as ‘winning the confidence of the markets’ after the global financial crisis of 2007-08 generates ever more violent forms of exclusion and denial of basic rights, the measures taken to save the financial system condemning to unending austerity those at the bottom of the social scale—the very people to whom this failure is increasingly being attributed. To the migrants and refugees, we can add those who are being internally displaced to make way for investment opportunities for the super-rich: the poor, the unemployed and the slum-dwellers, together with most of those euphemistically described as ‘self-employed’—freelancers, micro-jobbers, those on zero-hours contracts and so on.
Capitalism knows no boundaries except those of its own creation. Across the globe it is dividing those protected within its sphere from a growing Precariat outside. So rather than seeing those denied a proper place in the social whole as some irrational excess or malfunctioning of the system, threatening stability and order, shouldn’t we see them as standing for what is universally problematic about society in the wake of the post-war settlement?
One thing is clear: if countries begin to define their politics in racial terms, if they systematically discriminate against ethnic minorities, if they allow immigration to take centre-stage so that it comes to define political discourse, then it’s difficult to see how we can avoid the disaster to which Badiou refers. The alternative is to mobilise behind universal norms to include all those who find themselves on the outside. Only a politics directed towards freedom and justice for all can have any chance of success.
Alain Badiou, Polemics, Verso, 2006, p 163
Slavoj Zizek, Absolute Recoil.: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism, Verso, 2014, pp 362, 369 and 381