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e-flux conversations

e-flux journal redux: Hito Steyerl on the racism of European elites

Last week, after the dispiriting results of the Brexit referendum, we posted an excerpt from the introduction to a 2011 special issue of e-flux journal with the theme “Idiot Wind: On the Rise of Right-Wing Populism in the US and Europe, and What It Means for Contemporary Art.” The Brexit vote, along with related developments like the rise of Donald Trump in the US, clearly demonstrate that the idiot wind has only gathered strength in the intervening years. Today we feature a piece by Hito Steyerl from that issue. Entitled “Right in our Face,” the text examines the semi-official racism of government elites in Germany and Austria, and crucially reminds us that xenophobia is not exclusively a working-class phenomenon. Like the introduction we featured last week, Steyerl’s piece sounds like it could’ve been written yesterday instead of five years ago. Here’s an excerpt:

All of these quite practical acts of violence were greatly supported and even applauded by elites, who took every opportunity to express doubts about ethnic minorities’ genetic makeup, inherited lack of intelligence, inbred fanaticism, and perceived failure to assimilate. We cannot neglect the fact that contemporary racism is eminently class-driven: it has its stronghold not in the working class, but in middle classes panicked by global competition, as well as in elites, who use the opportunity to deflect from growing social inequality by dangling the prospect of race-based subsidies for the working classes. Jacques Rancière’s recent refutation of the phantasm of an assumed working-class passion for racism is an extremely important tool of analysis here. Popular racist passion is seen as a primordially affective expression to be respected at any cost—and conveniently enables politicians to create racist policies to “acknowledge” them. But in effect, these passions are greatly exaggerated to allow room for middle and upper class racism to safely indulge itself, all the while remodeling the former First World as a defensive and resentful fortress. A bastille devastated from the inside by the delayed effects of shock capitalism, which have finally hit home…

Writer Boris Buden has compared this transition to the old philosophical problem of sophism. How many hairs does one have to lose to be considered bald? Or, in political terms: How much civility can the public sphere lose without lapsing into fascism? How much fear among minorities and how much radical neoliberal pauperization is permissible for societies to still qualify as democracies? To translate back to the language of sophism: Can ten remaining hairs still make a hairy head? Seven? Or even five? In other words: At what point do whole societies become skinheads? At what point does the politics of “more of the same” lapse into the militant call for more sameness?

Image: Arnold Schönberg, Blue Gaze, date unknown. Oil on canvas.

in this context I consider it extremely worrying if a left wing commentator like Paul Mason starts interpreting Nazi economic policies as success . “(Unemployment) in Germany after Hitler takes power (…) falls from 5.5 million in 1932 to half a million six years later. It shows the nationalist right has answers that, in the short term, often work better than those offered by democrats and globalists.” This quite shocking paragraph neglects the fact that this number reflects around 500.000 Jewish citizens expropriated, fired and forced to leave the country, plus vast numbers of so.called stateless people deported, expropriated etc. etc. - all this partly legitimized by a discourse of “rootless cosmopolitanism”, “degenerate arts” etc., which strongly reemerges right now. It also neglects the fact that all labour policies were subjected to the principle of “Wehrhaftmachung”, (a pseudoteutonic verbal contraption meaning all-out militarisation of production and daily life). Unions were disbanded, strikes banned, labour leaders killed or imprisoned in concentration camps. The promised nationalisation of industries did obviously not happen. Workers salaries were reduced to under the level of 1928. After 1936 demand for labor was strongest in defence industries, that were gearing up for WWII. Nazi labour policies had major implications for working women too. How about this statistics: in the 20es there were on average around 17,7 mio working women in Germany as opposed to 5,5 mio in 1936. All of this happens in the “short term” and I dont even want to mention the longer term here, Unemployment went down at the price of the total destruction of the workers movement and its institutions, plus massive ethnic “cleansing” with benefits.These measures benefited an organisationally disenfranchised, ethnically and politically decimated and militarised sector of the population - it would be an insult to working classes to be confused with this anemic surrogate.

Mason ends up ultimately not endorsing these policies - not because they are utterly fascist, and ultimately benefited Aryan oligarchs above anyone else - but because he thinks they could potentially be ineffective in a globalised economy.: you cant steal stuff from anyone like in the 30es because there is no surplus or net growth anywhere. Does this mean one should perhaps endorse them if there were some surplus to be appropriated, plundered, robbed and stolen? A bissi Kraft durch Freude perhaps?

To be fair, the paragraph mentioned above is definitely not the main point of Masons overall argument which is for Britain to join EEA, but I have no idea what could be gained from making such statements.


There is every reason to draw this further and locate the category of class not only to a national register, but to a global one. Going so far as to discuss the loss of rights of say, citizens of the dominant nations is only going so far as to discuss a spatial and incomplete interpretation of a world, a planet, in which racism, facism, and classism perpetuate their effects onto the underprivileged.

I believe that should this discussion even continue there must be acknowledgment of this, and furthermore that we should not seek to play parlor tricks with the suffering of a few in order to find meaning, time well spent, to discursive practice.

I would like to begin by raising the hypothesis that (art) discourse itself, when displayed to only the populations of dominant nations, is a self-centered disease of this global inequality.


There is a similar nostalgia for Stalin in Russia these days, with one of the arguments being: yes sure he was a despot, but look at the wonders he did for Soviet economy where in a few years this gigantic country was fully industrialized, etc. Naturally these people never mention that free labor force to do this came in part from mass imprisonment and forced labor.

I’ve long thought Europe had better solutions for young men and women to find education and work that American men and women. But the rise of right wing nationalism belies that perception. That points to the elephant in the room, the ever increasing gap between rich and everyone else. The problems involved with the imbalance of resources is probably addressed and predicted by the past and by Jaren Diamond. Sadly, our politicians seem ignorant to these survival tenants, and civilization will continue to suffer from their ignorance.