The politics of fear

Fear of responding to a politics of fear is a critical aspect of the present weakness in the situation in which Europeans find themselves.
Joan Subirats
16 May 2011

During the last round of elections in Spain, and in other parts of Europe, it became clear that for many politicians, immigration has become the ultimate resource for connecting with an electorate that is increasingly alienated from ‘politics as usual’. Immigration is presented as part of a three-pronged argument: “immigrants are the cause of delinquency”, “immigrants threaten our welfare and reduce our opportunities for finding work” and “many immigrants are religious fundamentalists and potentially dangerous”. It is evident that Spain has seen a huge increase in the number of immigrants in a very short period of time. And it is to its merit that this has occurred without any significant barriers, thanks basically to the municipal councils and other social and political actors working in this area. It is also well-known that the distribution of such an enormous number of newcomers has not been proportional across the territory. Some towns and neighbourhoods therefore have highly significant percentages of immigrant population. The main places for the arrival of newcomers tend to be the neighbourhoods and districts that are more accessible to their fragile economy – these are often people who have scarcely been able to provide for their journey or for settling properly. It is in these neighbourhoods and districts, as a result of the problems generated by their settling in areas and territories that are already fragile, that the electoral hopes of some political organisations are converging: parties and leaders that are playing on a fear of ‘the other’, with ‘the outsiders’ as a core element in their political manifesto.

In Catalonia there is a political party, “Plataforma per Catalunya” (“Platform for Catalonia”) which points a finger directly at the excessive numbers of immigrants who ‘steal’ opportunities and benefits from the ‘national population’ and, appealing to the Christian roots of the native Spanish, propound that the expulsion of Muslim immigrants is a necessity. Much more serious than that in terms of the impact it has on the Spanish political panorama is the case of the “Partido Popular” (Popular Party), one of the biggest parties operating in Spain. This conservative party is flirting with racism in a highly aggressive campaign on immigration. One day they are attacking the Romanian gypsies, just like Sarkozy in France or Berlusconi in Italy, and taking advantage of the weak response of both the European Union and the Spanish Government itself; the next day they are accusing immigrants of abusing the health service. Then they are demanding that immigrants carry a “certificate of good behaviour” containing the opinions of their neighbours, or they are condemning family regrouping as being tantamount to a lawful open door to illegal immigrants.  All of this is peppered with constant, unequivocal allusions to the connection between immigration, anti-social behaviour and delinquency. So how far will this, and the contamination that it generates among Spanish public opinion, be taken?

One certainty is that all over Europe there is a significant resurgence of xenophobia and the politics of fear, and this seems to be obliging the more conventional right-wing to radicalise its position in order to block the rise of the extreme right.  The lack of clear answers in the face of economic crisis only serves to lend weight to suspicion and social uncertainty.  The problem is that there is no room for half-measures against this tendency to criminalise immigrants, in particular and currently Muslims, and it is precisely these half-measures that are not only characterising the right-wing, conservative parties but are also influencing the centre and social-democrat parties. In Catalonia, some local mayors have even banned the burka in public spaces, despite the fact that there are barely any immigrants in their communities, as well as placing all manner of obstacles in the way of establishing functioning mosques. All this means that people are starting to see opinions that can easily slide into xenophobia and discrimination as being normal and worthy of public consideration by the public.

In times of economic crisis, such as now, and with the perceived threat that many people may be feeling in relation to the sustainability of all kinds of welfare benefits, what starts off with heterophobia, blaming “others” for what is happening, could end up with positions of racism that are not in fact racially based. Our historical “others”(the gypsies) are rejected, this is followed by our new “others” (Islamophobia) and finally extends to “all the rest” who abuse our rights and endanger the small number of jobs to which “we” are entitled and the large or small amount of benefits that “we” now have access to. This faces us with the classic scenario of shifting boundaries between “us” and “them”. It is incredible that, as one of the leaders of the Popular Party has done, a politician can justify his position by suggesting that he is only expressing what the public thinks but doesn’t dare say. Building positions of strength from the lowest passions and the propagation of fear has always led to dangerous extremes. In fact, with these ambiguities and half-truths, much more radical and openly racist stances are being dignified. And in the end, if we accept that many of the accusations against immigrants derive from their situation of social exclusion (one that is also shared by many “nationals”), what starts out as racism ends up developing into the situation of those whose rejection has always increased when their situation of poverty is added to their ethnic origin and the religion they practice, in this case the Muslims.

Europe today has been built on numerous religious conflicts and we have inscribed religious freedom as something inescapable in our codes. But we are afraid of the radicalism of those who have not yet done their homework in terms of secularising their public and political behaviour. We cannot make any advances in mutual acceptance by exacerbating differences, and even less so if we make religion the cultural divide and the barrier to full public inclusion. Islam is now a European religion that should fit into the logic of secularisation of public space and political life. We cannot fall into the trap of confusing a religious option, which not everyone of the same origin shares or practices in the same way, with lifestyles and cultural expression. We need a clear disavowal of those who try to criminalise religious practice by making it foreign from a cultural and social point of view. And in Europe, that criminalization is one of the risks we now face.

Of course, it is a common occurrence that the powerless regularly take out their frustrations on the weakest. And “outsiders” are included in that group. But there is also a systematic and connected attack on so-called foreigners by the powers-that-be. We need to remember the observations of Frantz Fanon during the immediate post-independence period in Africa: “the working class of the towns, the masses of the unemployed, the small artisans and craftsmen [...] line up behind this nationalist attitude; but in all justice let it be said, they only follow in the steps of their bourgeoisie. If the national bourgeoisie goes into competition with the Europeans, the artisans and craftsmen start a fight against non-national Africans [...]. From nationalism we have passed to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism, and finally to racism. These foreigners are called on to leave; their shops are burned, their street stalls are wrecked [...]”.  Evidently, then, xenophobia is a political discourse, a set of ideological parameters within which solutions to our pressing problems are being conceived. The terrible thing is that such a discourse has until now been unsuccessfully challenged and could become hegemonic.

That current quasi-fascist politics have acquired a certain hold over large groups of unskilled and poor European citizens should come as no surprise. We need to confront the fear and passivity in presenting alternative discourses. Passive citizenship and the culture of individualism are obstacles to political mobilization. The exclusion of political and economic alternatives constitutes the hegemonic scenario. The fear of responding to the politics of fear is a critical aspect of the present weakness in the situation of the European public. We have to say ‘no’ to treating people differently, but to do that we have to overcome the fear of politics and the fear of political agency. It has been said that politics is too important to be left to politicians alone. As Alain Badiou stated, we have to defend the axiom of equality, the idea that every single person who lives in Europe counts in the same way and must be treated the same. The only way to challenge xenophobia is to courageously fight the fear of politics and stand up for those ideas that challenge the politics of fear and discrimination. Even where there are actions that can be considered as illegal, people should never be branded illegal. Using xenophobia as a political tool is very dangerous. It undermines our democracy. I hope Europeans will be courageous enough to focus on getting real answers to our real challenges.

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