Xenophobia and the Civilizing Mission

Europe’s civilizing mission is humanitarian - its duty to intervene to spread the good word, protecting the oppressed against local tyrants. The conditions by which this protection is granted are always dictated by the protector and never the protégé. Though this is not said, it is a given.
Françoise Vergès
13 May 2011

Xenophobia is back in Europe. The foreigner is once again the target of attacks, the explanation for everything that goes wrong: loss of jobs, insecurity, criminality. He embodies the fear of being overwhelmed in one’s own country, of losing ‘national’ values, ‘national’ identity, of no longer feeling ‘at home’. But what is home? What is the ‘home’ of Europe?

The return of the figure of the foreigner in Europe questions the ways in which Europe has sought to reconstruct itself after a historical moment of deep importance: the fall of colonial empires. Medias and public opinion usually refer to two contemporary facts that define Europe, its contours, its ‘spirit’: the rise and fall of Nazism and totalitarianism, summarized in the Second World War and the ‘Fall of the Berlin Wall.’ Both occurred in Europe. However, the creation and fall of the colonial empires, events of considerable importance in the making of modern Europe, is very rarely included. The ways in which colonialism and its end have shaped Europe are not quite part of European cartography. What occurred in the colony is never entirely seen as the creation of modern, democratic Europe but as a monstrous perversion carried out by ‘uncivilized’ men. The colony is externalized, excised from political thought, framed between the beginning of colonization and its end. The ‘colonized’ is a foreign figure, framed within fixed categories, lazy, ungrateful, aggressive, violent, sexist. His woman is ‘oppressed,’ veiled, caught in tradition. The figure of the foreigner remains opaque, someone who is entirely a stranger, unable to ‘integrate’ European culture and values. And yet, only through this integration might the stranger enter civilization.

Europe’s civilizing mission has always hesitated between a belief in its power of persuasion -who would not want to become like a European? - and the suspicion that it cannot win. Hence, the battle is endless, millenary. Europe’s civilizing mission is humanitarian - its duty to intervene to spread the good word, protecting the oppressed against local tyrants. The conditions by which this protection is granted are always dictated by the protector and never the protégé. Though this is not said, it is a given. Whether it is a ‘Murderous Humanitarianism’ (to borrow the title of a 1932 manifesto signed by André Breton, Paul Eluard, Benjamin Peret, Yves Tanguy, and the Martinican surrealists Pierre Yoyotte and J.M. Monnerot) remains a question for our times.

The narrow cartography of Europe constructs a space where the battle between good and evil supports its ideal of a civilizing mission at home and abroad. The dramaturgy of the battle between two extremes - European democracy, liberal values, human rights vs. monstrous creations such as Nazism, totalitarianism, barbarism - masks the need for Europe of creating a figure that must be regularly excluded, targeted, chased, imprisoned, discriminated against, killed.

In Discourse Against Colonialism (1955) Aimé Césaire wrote: “Europe is indefensible,” “morally, spiritually indefensible.” Césaire argued that colonization had worked to “decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the world, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism.” To him, Nazism was the return to European soil of this violence: “No one colonizes innocently, no one colonizes with immunity either,” he continued. In 1956, Césaire called for a “ Copernican revolution” in European thought against its rooted habit to think on behalf of everyone and indicted a “fraternity,” which convinced of its superiority and its experience, will guide you on its own road, regardless of your needs and desires. At the end of his life, Césaire still doubted Europe’s capacity to operate its Copernican revolution.

Césaire’s criticism of European incapacity to operate a shift, to map the world along the routes of millenary migrations caused by wars, imperialism, colonialism, post-colonialism, by increased inequalities, and by violence, was picked up by Frantz Fanon. His proposition - “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World” - summed up the role played by the colony in the making of Europe. The intimate relation between modernity and colonialism (slavery and post-slavery) disguised under the civilizing mission was inescapable. As soon as modern Europe launched itself into the slave trade, the foreigner entered its body politic and its imaginary, and thought became contaminated by the monstrous humanitarianism it had created to justify its expansion, its practices of genocide and spoliation. Actively helped by local mercenaries and other tyrants or groups that benefited from a predatory economy, monstrous humanitarianism became a politics. It has been said that policies in the colony and its metropole were intractably and dynamically tied together. Democracy was contaminated by racism and xenophobia. Colonialism carried within it the possibility of transcontinental and transnational movements joining forces against it, because nothing is entirely hegemonic. However, the European Left was not entirely immune from contamination. And to Fanon, since most of the European Left had been an accomplice of the civilizing mission, if it did not work through why it had been so seduced by colonization, it would continue to turn to moralistic discourse when politics was needed.

Is the civilizing mission still operative? The discourse of ‘integration,’ ‘defense of European values,’ ‘the failure of multiculturalism,’ ‘an assault against Europe by a tsunami of migrants,’ and its attendant policies, echoes that of the civilizing mission. Europe must be both highly desirable (as the site of civilization) and utterly unreachable. It must be attractive to peoples around the world as an identity, a way of life to imitate but also, as such, it must remain secluded, protected within its imaginary borders.

Current fears today are not mere expressions of ‘false consciousness’. Loss of jobs, insecurity, criminality are a reality. Feelings of no longer feeling ‘at home’ are based on increasing vulnerability. None of these facts is the result of the presence of the foreigners. But they are nonetheless real. The Far Right has been able to hear these fears but it has articulated them in the vocabulary of xenophobia. The Left remains hopelessly unable to counter attack. In France, the Trotskyite party of Oliver Besancenot has imploded around the question of the veil. One of his candidates in last year’s regional elections was a young woman wearing a foulard. Within the party, immediate protests were voiced, particularly from feminists. The ‘veil’ was the sign of women’s oppression, how could their party support it? The division within the party had important consequences: loss of members, withdrawal of candidates… The feminists were unrepentant. As such, they followed a tradition within the French feminist movement of, as Césaire and Fanon had said for Left political parties, wanting to ‘guide’ other women towards ‘true’ emancipation. In this context, Fanon’s analysis in Algeria Unveiled deserves to be read again and anew. Speaking on the Tunisian Revolution, former socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, has rejoiced over the Tunisians’ adoption of “our values.” The debates on ‘national identity,’ on the specificity of French ‘secularism,’ (which has almost become a religion rather than being the expression of the separation of Church and State), on ‘Islam and the Republic,’ - these are all signs of an offensive designed to counter changes within Europe. Individuals, groups, peoples, are still perceived on a hierarchical scale according to their ‘proximity’ to vague and general values.

The new mission to civilize masks new forms of colonization, vulnerability, fragility, and brutal exploitation. Yet, if yesterday, Europe was able to enter the struggle against the slave trade and slavery, to join in the struggle against colonialism and imperialism, to move towards its Copernican revolution, there is no reason why today it cannot find grounds to renew the struggle. Current conservative populism is pitting poor against poor. Their mixed bag of liberal policies for the private sphere, xenophobia, narrow nationalism, defense of secularism (i.e. against ‘Islam’), attacks on globalization not in order to defend social justice but rather to protect a national capitalism, their calls for a conversation ‘without taboos,’ ‘without a guilt complex,’ unconstrained by ‘political correctness,’ testify to the absence of a discourse that articulates justified discontent with necessary transcontinental solidarity and a politics of hospitality that is neither naïve nor abstract, but grounded in a dynamic conversation on social justice and the common good. Once and for all, let us discard the idea of a civilizing mission.

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