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The Uses of Xenophobia

In Ash Amin’s guest week on “The Uses of Xenophobia”, beginning on Europe Day, 2011, the thrust of the essays has been to press for a more open and democratic European continent, which turns to face the turbulent and uncertain future together with the stranger, treated as an ally and equal.
Ash Amin
9 May 2011

Our Guest Editor for 'The Uses of Xenophobia', Professor Ash Amin, works at Durham University and is currently Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala. A founder member of the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe (www.livingindiversity.org), Ash writes about the dislocations of the unequal society. His next books include The Freight of Social Ties (Polity Press, 2012), which examines the political economy of the response to strangers in the west, and with Nigel Thrift, (Political Openings: An Essay on Left Futures, Duke University Press, 2012), which argues that without recovering a world-making capability, one that taps deep into unrepresented injuries and desires, the Left will never return as a mass political force.

His chosen theme for the week is ‘The Uses of Xenophobia’.  Ash Amin introduces his subject:

“Today is Europe Day, and to mark it, we publish a series of essays over the next seven days on the political uses of xenophobia in Europe.  But is this not a peculiar and particularly macabre choice for a day when the achievements of Europe should be celebrated - the coming together of many nations, the rise of a cross-national polity and society, the freedoms and benefits brought by European unification? Of course, these claims are contestable, and indeed many would argue that Europe has only brought trouble.  Be that as it may, why ‘xenophobia’? There are two clear reasons.  First, a chill wind is blowing across Europe, from east to west and from north to south, in many different guises and for many different reasons, but always with the same result - everywhere finding cause to vilify and eject the stranger. Lately, there have been calls to bring back the internal border controls that the Schengen Agreement lifted some years ago, in order to monitor more closely the movements of the non-European stranger. We thank Laura Balbo for her ‘message from the front line’, as European papers today carry reports that despite the alarm being raised, Nato units left women and children and political refugees for 16 days to die of hunger and thirst in the Mediterranean. On this Europe Day it needs to be said, before things get irrevocably worse, that Europe is becoming unashamedly xenophobic again under the cloak of claims presented as necessary, reasonable. 

Secondly, and explaining the week’s focus on the ‘uses’ of xenophobia, the diagnosis of the growing aversion towards the stranger shows that there is nothing natural and therefore irreversible about it. The democratic Left, displaced by political forces that prey on the sentiments of aversion, has begun to lament its failure not only to read the depth of public anxiety in the face of global exposure and cultural mixing, but also to accept it as given and accordingly deliver a politics of national purification and cosy community. Many forms of nationalism, many celebrations of community, are proper expressions of one's culture. But the defence of a monoculture as such from all intruders is a dangerous diversion in the modern world. Further, the essays here show that the manipulations of xenophobia are machinic and that public sentiments are all too easily made and unmade. Xenophobia, which undeniably taps into deep-rooted anxieties and fears of insecurity and uncertainty, has its uses.  The vilification of the stranger is helping those in power - and those seeking power - to distract attention from other hard truths facing Europe.  But before democrats rush to embrace crass populism, they might ponder on a history of unnecessary and damaging vilification, and the contours of a fair and equal society that work with public affects of openness, courage and empathy. Can we, on Europe Day, begin the work of accepting diversity within Europe and in its dealings with the world, as the basis of collective existence and future being?

Read Uses of Xenophobia:

To launch the week, fighting the wrong enemies is our subject. My introduction opens with the temporalities of xenophobia, and outlines a more productive politics of togetherness in Europe, building on existing practices of democratic engagement. Albena Azmanova's piece asks why widespread social anxiety in Europe is fuelling xenophobia rather than a 'counter-wave against neoliberal capitalism'. She calls for growing public momentum to demand more from our nation-states.

On Tuesday, Ruth Wodak exposed the rhetorical power of the language of xenophobia in Europe, the closures to thought and feeling enabled by how the outsider is described in the media and by regressive political movements. She began the task of holding our political leaders to account. But maintenance will require hard work, for the practices of labeling tap into well-established framings of community and its outsiders, such as nationalist nostalgia and enduring categorizations of the world at large, as shown by Les Back and Alex Rhys-Taylor.

Contributions this Wednesday begin to get behind the pathology of fear. Josep Ramoneda examines the ways in which fear has been drummed up in a gap in part created by the European Left’s failure to offer a hopeful alternative. Bashkim Shehu traces the particularities of fear in central eastern European countries bewildered by the pressures of market society and regulated by sentiments of aversion towards the stranger that can be traced back to Communism. Liz Fekete maps the official vilification of multiculturalism across Europe by the largest grouping in the European parliament, considering the work done by this turn against a mixity not so long ago celebrated by officialdom.

This Friday, after a day of celebrating ten years of open Democracy, we return to a disturbing essay on the easy equivalences enabled by xenophobia. Markha Valenta looks at how the spread of Islamophobia in the European public domain has complex knock-on effects, not least for our Jewish minorities. Françoise Vergès, with France in the background, tracks the long history of marking the stranger as uncivilized, and to be tamed or not. 

After a weekend of reflection, three final essays name the losses that have fanned xenophobia, and which require public and political redress. Michel Agier marks the ramified collapse of the idea of the universal commons. Joan Subirats argues that only a politics of equality can counter these European developments. Etienne Balibar closes our guest week with a new set of questions, about ‘populism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘Europe’ itself. He points out there is in Europe today a ‘national question’ completely underestimated by the architects of Europe. In these, as in many of our pieces this week, we realize only too well that a naming of what is wrong or a glimpse of an alternative future offers only the most fragile of beginnings. We are a long, long way from developing a tangible and felt democratic politics of the daily encounter with difference that makes xenophobia redundant.  But beginnings must be made and today we reprise some of our strong calls for a rethink.”

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