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Race and Crisis

Proposal for a journal special issue  (Satnam Virdee and Suman Gupta)

Title: Race and Crisis

Rationale and Context:

The third position is that there are probably differences of all sorts in the world, that difference is a kind of anomalous existence out there, a kind of random series of all sorts of things in what you call the world, there’s no reason to deny this reality or this diversity. […] It’s only when these differences have been organized within language, within discourse, within systems of meaning, that the differences can be said to acquire meaning and become a factor in human culture and regulate conduct. That is the nature of what I’m calling the discursive concept of race. Not that nothing exists of differences, but that what matters are the systems we use to make sense, to make human societies intelligible. […] I think these are discursive systems because the interplay between the representation of racial difference, the writing of power, and the production of knowledge, is crucial to the way in which they are generated, and the way in which they function.

Stuart Hall, Race – The Floating Signifier (documentary), dir. Sut Jally, Media Education Foundation, 1997.

The proposed special issue is addressed to the political economy of race-centred discourses in European contexts since the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Stuart Hall’s third position on ascriptions of race, replacing the broadly realist and the purely linguistic, provides a template for this issue. The discursive concept suggests that the enunciation of race is always more than simply a matter of talking about race. Or, more precisely, in discursive systems and practices the signification of race radiates into broad political dispositions and social structures; race is an unstable signifier which enables the latter to be articulated apparently meaningfully rather than denoting anything firmly in itself. Focusing on the instabilities of signifying race – with normative inflections, as synecdoche, as concretization, as simile, through substitution, allusively, ironically, by implication or even by elision, and so on – in specific contexts enables the social and political disposition of those contexts to be put into relief. Perhaps the argument can be taken further: possibly, discursive recourse to race marks social fault-lines, slippages between political or economic rationality and the exercise of power and hegemonic conditions. Other or all significations of difference may, no doubt, serve a similar project – the signification of race is at issue here.  

Contributions to this special issue, then, are not led by a moral imperative, by concern about racial prejudice or advocacy against discrimination; the point here is to understand the current post-2008 European condition by exploring significations of race. Prejudice and discrimination are unquestionably vital symptoms, and sometimes a priori underpinnings, of racialized discourses, and will be identified as such in contexts examined here where relevant. But it is the mechanics of discourses at this historical juncture rather than the general denunciation of prejudice which is of interest here. Race is the fulcrum for analytical engagement here rather than this being an occasion for reiterating a general anti-racist position. As far as this issue goes, that general position needs no reiterating – it is the only rational position from which analysis can be undertaken with Hall’s third position in mind.

The historical juncture in question is Europe since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, or, in other words, that context encompasses the discursive fields under examination here. The significance given to the financial crisis here is distinctive. Insofar as this special issue goes, the context of the financial crisis is not confined to the operations of financial institutions and matters of state policy and governance. Rather, the financial crisis is regarded here as a juncture which crystallises and puts pressure upon various facets of political, economic and cultural life within the transnational formation of the EU, within and across member states. These are facets of life, in other words, which have naturally obtained for long but which, amidst the crisis, appeared as inextricably intermeshed by a dominant – and oppressive -- political and economic rationale. This rationale is variously apprehended under the rubric of “financialization”, “neoliberalism”, cost-benefit accounting in “biopolitics”, the ethical weight of “sovereign debt” and strategies of “austerity” regimes; and the structures, strategies and agencies of the rationale are tested through numerous modes of resistance and expressions of disaffection (through ballot boxes, marches, occupations, riots, strikes, hacktivism and so on). It could be said that conceptually the financial crisis radiates from its core in the banking sector into a web of social, political and cultural crises which cohere under this dominant rationale. For the sake of convenience, this special issue focuses on certain nodes within this web of crises:

  • Disinvestments and vulnerable populations: broadly the gradual minimization of welfare arrangements and corresponding production of vulnerable or dispossessed populations – the poverty-stricken, unemployed or precariously employed (especially youth), in need of healthcare, etc.
  • Tied in with the above, anxiety about migration and immigrants: at two principal levels – into the EU and across member-states – which become increasingly effective issues for political mobilizations.
  • Tied in with both the above, a surge of neo-nationalisms fracturing always-shaky EU integrities and exacerbating unevenness within the transnational formation (raising the spectre of exits), and also pressing upon the integrity of nation-states (by moves towards secession, for instance).
  • Activated through all the above, hardening protectionist policies and declaring states of exception: securing boundaries and policing populations (most obviously on the back of Islamist extremism and instability in the Middle East and North Africa, more tacitly to counter disaffected and dispossessed populations within and manage resistances).

At each of these nodes, and indeed other nodes, of the web of crisis radiating out of and around the financial crisis the signification of race plays a critical role. So, for instance: minorities defined by race tend to be disproportionately represented in vulnerable populations; “immigrants” is generally a euphemism for racial others and unwanted immigrants are ascribed in racialized ways; neo-nationalisms habitually define national belonging and threats with racial signifiers; race is often foregrounded in profiling extremists and disaffected and resistant populations. The contributions to this special issue will focus on the signification of race at these nodes to explore discourses of crises – in European contexts after 2008.

Naturally, “European contexts” is rather a vague description of a complex field, and in this instance consists in a variety of possible directions: examining the situation in specific member states, across member states, across the EU generally, in terms of linguistically or culturally or economically described collectives, or for any of those in relation to other geopolitically described areas. Contributions may also conceive of “European contexts” as not so much described in terms of political boundaries as in terms of cultural circulations and processes, markets, and demographic movements. In this respect, the special issue is open to different ways of characterizing the “European context” – and will encourage contributors to interrogate and trouble received notions of “Europe” or “European nation-state” or “European culture/s or peoples”.

The editors of this special issue will also encourage self-reflection on academic frames for analysing significations of race, and an introduction or conclusion will address academic discourses of race specifically. Since the institutionalization of a certain form of social constructionist identity politics in academia in the 1980s/1990s – often as a liberal or new left departure from class analysis – academic analysis has itself arguably become complicit in dominant discourses and significations of race. Whether or not that has indeed been the case, and what ambivalences and contradictions appear in academic race studies, and how those play in the above context of crises, are salient questions for this special issue.     


Paper Abstracts

1. Race, crisis and the break-up of Britain

Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever

In Britain, the financial crisis and resulting implementation of austerity has been rapidly over-determined by a constitutional crisis that threatens to break-up the former hegemon of the world-system. This essay considers how race has been central to the unfolding of these crises. It is divided into two parts. The first focuses on Scotland, where race operates as a kind of 'absent present' through which the SNP - the dominant force in Scottish politics - has re-imagined the nation as one that is both politically progressive, and welcoming to migrants. This, we argue has helped to consolidate an increasingly powerful myth that when it comes to racism there is 'no problem here', that 'we're a' Jock Tamson's bairns'. We unpick how this re-imagining of Scottishness is underpinned by a relational analytic frame such that it acquires its powerful appeal precisely through its capacity to define itself in opposition to that which it is not (e.g. English/ British). The dangers of this nationalist re-imagining are drawn out: the mythical vision of a progressive, racism-free Scotland can only be sustained by projecting the history of the British Empire and postcolonial racisms onto England/ Britain. Moreover, such myth-making has the effect of deflecting attention away from the disproportionate role that Scots actually played in the British Empire, and precludes any discussion of racisms in the country today. If speaking about race and racism has become increasingly difficult in the emergent vision of Scotland crafted by the SNP, this is in direct contrast to England, which occupies the second part of the essay.

As Paul Gilroy has persuasively demonstrated, England has been deeply affected by a mood of postcolonial melancholia such that almost every important question has come to be defined by and through race. The continuing significance of race in shaping the political field in England has been most clearly illustrated in the aftermath of the financial crisis with the emergence of two political formations: the English Defence League and UKIP, the latter of which has made significant electoral inroads across England in recent years. We argue that UKIP has been able to gain such traction owing to the fact that the racialized codes of belonging which it expresses have long been part of the habitus of the English social formation. Despite the profound multiculture that characterises so many English towns and cities, race continues to shape dominant understandings of Englishness in the twenty first century. After half a century of ‘race relations’ legislation, racialized conceptions of Englishness continue to assert themselves in the popular imaginary.

Alongside this story, however, is the rich history of anti-racism in England, itself a product of the presence and agency of racialized outsiders (Virdee 2014) who have helped to broaden and expand a more inclusive conception of Britishness. The essay concludes, therefore, by exploring some of the political challenges that the financial and constitutional crises have thrown up within the Scottish and English contexts, particularly with respect to the politics of racism and antiracism.

2. Racialization processes as crisis management strategies: reflecting on the Italian cycle of migrant struggles

Federico Olivieri

This paper explores how the European ruling classes deploy the idea of 'race' against migrants and their descendants as part of a strategy of managing the crisis and reproducing neoliberalism in even more exacerbated ways than in the last two decades. Taking immigrant-led struggles as an analytical standpoint, and contemporary Italy as my case study, I show how migrant struggles oppose elite processes of racialisation which construct immigrants and their descendants, alternatively or simultaneously, as threatening, useful or victimised subjects, thereby legitimising their subaltern position and (re)producing 'us-them' divisions within the working class and society.

I will reconstruct some of the migrant struggles in Italy during the crisis. For instance, struggles for decoupling the residence permit from the working contract reverse racialisation processes which produce migrants as a disposable and flexible labour force, particularly useful during the crisis and the restructuring of the economy. Struggles against exploitative working conditions, especially in agriculture, tourism and logistics, reverse racialisation processes which blame migrants for taking 'Italian jobs' and fragment the working class along ethno-national and legal divides, by developing solidarity and unity around the claim for the same rights. Struggles for decent housing reverse racialisation processes which present migrants as welfare abusers unfairly competing with Italian poor people for scarce resources, by denouncing speculative distortions of the private property market and public disinvestment from social housing.

In conclusion, I will interpret discourses and practices of 'institutional racism', often contested by struggling migrants and their Italian supporters in relation to obstacles for residence permits, social housing and welfare, in connection with expressions of so-called 'popular racism' emerging on the labour market and in ethnic diverse, marginal neighbourhoods. These are two sides of the same use of 'race' for reproducing social power structures in the crisis. Migrant struggles seem to offer a viable alternative to those dynamics as they create the conditions for building coalitions between ethnic diverse people and workers, engaged in ending austerity and supporting the transition to a more sustainable economic model.

3. Return to “the Jungle”: Racial Capitalism and European Borders

Imogen Tyler

This article examines the ways in which a “grammar of animality” (Mbembe) underpins the exercise of neoliberal modes of governmentality in Europe post-2008. It considers how a racial politics of the border, exemplified by the figure of migrant swarm, is deployed in attempts to legitimate extraordinary border control mechanisms. Thinking through this particular instantiation of racial capitalism with the work of contemporary critical black scholarship, it will also examine (and trouble) the forms of resistance deployed by migrants, activists and NGOs against the “grammar of animality” which shapes emergent border regimes in post-crash Europe.

4. ‘Angry Old White Men’: UKIP and Old Labour

John Seed

This article looks at the United Kingdom Independence Party and its attractions for significant numbers of working-class voters – and in particular, for older, less skilled, less educated working-class men. This issue might be quickly dismissed as requiring little analysis. Of course a right-wing and crypto-racist party, antagonistic to immigration, will find support among precisely this kind of social constituency of angry old white men out of step with the new cosmopolitan zeitgeist. However, UKIP is a complex and unstable formation. It undoubtedly has racist elements which are explored here. However, it is also worth asking whether too quick an ascription of racism to UKIP isn’t a kind of liberal strategy to deflect attention from some of the destabilising implications of its recent electoral successes. This article will look at the transformations of working-class life over the last generation and, in particular, at the impact of the opening of the labour market to EU labour.

5. A crisis of multiculturalism? ”Race” and the upsurge of antagonistic popular movements in Sweden

Carl-Ulrik Schierup, Aleksandra Ålund & Anders Neergaard

Across a crisis stricken Europe battles rage for post-neoliberal hegemony, with “race” and “austerity” as central signifiers. One of the places where the frontlines are most pregnant is Sweden; famous for its multicultural utopianism. Focusing on the upsurge of mutually antagonistic popular movements – “racist” and “anti-racist” - the paper disentangles an exemplary case of Europe’s present Polanyian moment, reminiscent of the 1930s. Yet, unearthing what is in what appears to be expounds a different conjuncture in the political economy and geopolitics of crisis and race. It highlights the necessity of building a dissimilar utopia for the reimagineering of European communities.

6. The adventure of the ‘Greek race’ in the era of crisis and immigration: Transformations of ‘race’ in official, media and mundane discourses

Giorgos Tsimouris

In this paper I explore the transformations of representations and understandings of ‘Greekness’ in public domain as the consequence of the crisis. While much emphasis was placed upon the financial and strictly political consequences of the Greek crisis I argue that these are inextricably linked with cultural revisions and interrogations over the significance of central institutions. Certain among the main questions debated in diverse forums and levels seeking a scapegoat responsible for the decline of the nation was, ‘what it means to be really Greek’ who can be included in the Greek nation, who can be tolerated and who is seen as an anomaly and a matter out of place that ‘we’ should get rid of him/her by any means. This hegemonic developments drove to more essentialist understandings of the ‘Greek race’ that can be traced in the rapid rise of neo-fascism and in the shift from the ‘albanophobia’ of the 90s to the targeting of immigrants of color during crisis. Considering ‘race’ as a discursive construction in the play between power, representation and culture, I intend to explore the rationalizations of this transformation.

7. Governmental hate speech: pride and prejudices in Bulgaria

Alexey Pamporov

In the article I am going to present and discuss four crucial issues for understanding racial prejudices in Bulgaria. Firstly, the main trends and correlations in articulating distances between ethnically-defined social groups will be presented, and some of the myths at work there will be underlined. Secondly, media discourses concerning the Roma population will be analysed as providing examples of public hate speech. Thirdly, drawing upon such-speech surveys that my research team is currently conducting, public attitudes towards hate speech will be discussed. Finally, light will be thrown on debates around several “Roma-gate" scandals in the last three years, in which the present administration, especially the Minister of Health and an MP from the government’s supporting coalition, are implicated. These offer cases of the public dehumanization of Roma.

8. Holding on to or letting go of race?

Karim Murji

In Desire for Race, Daynes and Lee argue that academics, including critical social constructionists, are unable to ‘let go’ of race because of the residual force of essentialisms – biological as well as cultural and psychic. Arguments over the meaning and usefulness of the ‘post racial’ highlights this because, from a critical point of view, it often argues against the denial of race, when most social constructionism has stressed the artificiality of race. This content is the point of departure of a consideration of the relationship between academics and race. Drawing on post-2012 debates about migration and policing in Europe and the USA, I argue that through its institutional power critical academic discourse itself reproduces the very problematics of race that it seeks to understand and criticise.

9. Connective tissue: texts, classroom, race and the contemporary crisis

Russell West-Pavlov

This article responds to the bizarre mixture of self-aggrandizement, perceived marginality, and self-misrecognition that characterizes contemporary European academia. Academics magnifies the impact of their critique by generalizing the example of a few public intellectuals or policy makers, at the same time as they secretly subscribe to neoliberalism’s disregard of their long dwindling relevance.

Paradoxically, this schizoid structure is accompanied by an almost total neglect of the place where the literary humanities perhaps have their greatest impact: namely, in the classroom, in particular in their role of teaching future teachers, who in turn will work in classrooms. The article suggests that race is one of the avenues that the classroom offers for entering into an engagement, both critical and constructive, with the immensely complex and over-determined terrain of the contemporary crisis. Race, because it gathers together issues of nationalism, identity, employment, immigration, economics, futurities, violence, terror, provides a site where a humanities which is both critical, analytical, but also conducive to considerations of the nexus of identity and agency, may offer a classroom site of ‘connective tissue’.

10. The “Migrant Crisis” as Racial Crisis: The Postcolonial Condition in and of “Europe”

Nicholas De Genova

We are currently witnessing a remarkable conjuncture between the escalation, acceleration, and diversification of migrant and refugee mobilities, on the one hand, and the mutually constitutive crises of “European” borders and “European” identity, on the other, replete with reanimated reactionary populist nationalisms and racialized nativisms, the routinization of antiterrorist securitization, and pervasive and entrenched “Islamophobia” (or more precisely, anti-Muslim racism).  Despite the persistence of racial denial and the widespread refusal to frankly confront questions of “race” across Europe, the current constellation of “crises” presents precisely what can only be adequately comprehended as an unresolved racial crisis that derives fundamentally from the postcolonial condition of “Europe” as a whole, and therefore commands heightened scrutiny and rigorous investigation of the material and practical as well as discursive and symbolic productions of the co-constituted figures of “Europe” and “crisis” in light of the racial formations theory.

11. The Underperformance of White Working-Class Students in Britain

Suman Gupta

[See postings on the theme at the Comment and Debate page -- especially the final one]