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e-flux conversations

Right in Our Face

There is something deeply disappointing about the contemporary moment: it projects the past into the future.

I recently met some emigrants from Germany. I am not talking about émigrés who left in the 1930s to escape National Socialism. The people I met quietly decided they could no longer put up with Germany’s endless, debilitating, and deeply racist debates on immigration, and left the country in which they had been born and lived most their lives. These so-called debates had been going on least since the early 1980s, when anti-Turkish graffiti started appearing in the streets. Fueled by the so-called reunification in 1989, racist riots became the norm throughout the 1990s. I still vividly recall the accounts of a television crew in Rostock trapped in the elevator of a burning hostel for Vietnamese guest workers that had been attacked by a fascist mob for days on end—to the great amusement of the police forces standing by.

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.[footnote See Jacques Rancière, “Racism: A Passion from Above,” at .] 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.[footnote This is also why resistance comes first from these devastated places.]

The German “debates” around immigration—of which the latest edition is just one minor and rather irrelevant example—haven’t changed much over time. The only change has been Germany’s switch to being a net emigration country after aggressively influencing Schengen policies to shut out migrants and refugees almost entirely. Recent hostility is thus directed against resident minorities, as there are hardly any more immigrants worth speaking of. While the country has been at the vanguard of post-1989 racist violence, it has recently been overtaken by other zealous candidates for mainstreamed hostility, such as Russia, with its recent, massive skinhead riots against minorities.

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