Friday, 29 October 2010

The New European Political Racism, Pt. 1: How Nationism Whitewashes Racism

In Europe during the last decade or so, new (or, in some cases, semi-new) political parties have been not only popping up, but actually having some success among voters with a racist or semi-racist message. To the already established Front Nationale of France and the Fremskrittsparti of Norway, we now have, among others, the Danish Danskt Folkeparti, the Italian Lega Nord, the Dutch PVV, the Austrian FPÖ, and earlier this fall, my own country joined the ranks when the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna, in Swedish) won themselves 20 seats in national parliament (securing  between 5 and 6% of the votes in the general election). This development has come as something of a shock to many people, it seems, but – apparently – also to established political parties. The latter have been quite at a loss when it comes to handling the rhetoric of this new movement – which is designed to deflect associations with national socialism or the ethnic cleansing ideologies of the 90's Balkans and thereby avoid accusations of obvious racism of the sort repugnant to almost all Europeans. In some cases, most notably Denmark, parties labeling themselves liberal have become so confused by this trick that, apparently, they have concluded that this new wave is not about racism, but actually an acceptable form of liberalism where responsibility rather than freedom is emphasised (it has helped, perhaps, that this conceptual move have been fitting for other political purposes, such as down-scaling the public sector). Personally, I have been quite stunned by this inability of political leaders – "why don't they simply say what should be obvious to any politically trained eye, and quickly dismantle this new attempt of the far-right to gain foothold so that all voters can see it?", I have been asking myself.

Because they have not been saying it (and, I'll come to what "it" is). What they have done is either of three things: (a) pretending that the new racism doesn't exist (not seldom medicalising the phenomenon using terms such as "xenophobia"), (b) trying to snatch enough of the ideological/political ideas of the new racism, so that voters will be satisfied without voting for the new party, or (c) formulating arguments or rhetorical figures where an implicit premise is that the new party has to be fundamentally wrong or flawed – thus preaching only to the already converted. Of these tactics, two have failed, and one has actually functioned as an ideological arrowhead, helping tremendously to establish the ideological basic premises of the new racism as acceptable ones in public debate. This last one is, of course, (b). In Sweden, the pioneers of employing (b) have been the traditionally social-liberal Folkpartiet; clearly inspired by the success of Danskt Folkeparti, suggestions have repeatedly been made over the years (most notably in connection to upcoming parliamentary elections) about the launching of a test required for immigrants in order for them to be awarded Swedish citizenship. More lately, this party and the Christian Democrats have complemented the basic notion of conditionalised citizenship with the idea of at best awarding immigrants a revocable citizenship (e.g., should they commit serious crime). And during the last campaign-stretch of our most recent election, the conservative/right-wing liberal party Moderaterna choose to go public with similar ideas about citizenship for immigrants in tandem with increased opportunities for expelling foreign criminals from the country. The Christian Democrats produced the topping of this splendid cake of political opportunism when its leader, Göran Hägglund published an article declaring that, in fact, the Swedish population can be divided into two groups: "the people of reality" (yes, I am not joking, that's what he said) and the other (I guess, less real) ones – namely intellectuals and academics questioning the premises of the above described suggestions. The final package has then been made to fit into the present Government's (a – nowadays minority – coalition of the above mentioned parties plus Centerpartiet, led by Moderaterna) ideological basis that stresses the responsibility of citizens as a supplement or condition for liberty and security. Now, as evidenced by Moderaterna's clever little move of actually not suggesting that the citizenship of immigrants should be revocable in case of serious crime, "only" that citizenship should be revocable if attained deceitfully and that opportunities for expelling serious criminals from the country should be expanded, the application of strategy (b) has been gradually modified. Similarly, Folkpartiet has gradually changed the original idea of a test required for immigrants to get citizenship into the idea of an obligatory course on the Swedish language, public life, political system, etcetera. – quite close to the what the citizenship test implemented in Denmark since a few years is about, just without the test.

So, what did this do to the Sweden Democrats (our new racists), then? Well, as a matter of fact, the process described above – especially the early dashes at the citizenship test idea of Folkpartiet – made it quite easy for the Sweden Democrats to find and establish their own position. Although, there are some nuances, this position is the same as the one occupied by several of the other European new racist parties mentioned above. Moreover, thanks to the application of strategies (a)-(c) by the established parties, the Sweden Democrats could quite easily seize the most potent of rhetorical tools available to a small, new party: the repeated claim of addressing issues of importance to "ordinary people" that are ignored by other parties. The critical word here is "issues", because what is really meant, of course, is that the other parties are not supporting their policy suggestions. However, since some of these suggestions had actually already been put forward by some of the other parties (strategy (b)), or since the other parties either ignored (strategy (a)) or dismissed in an off hand way (strategy (c)) whatever the Sweden Democrats were saying – the latter were left quite free to make this proven pitch, sometimes added to by the observation that the other parties (through strategy (b)) actually agreed with the basics of what they were suggesting re. immigration, they just pretended to disagree due to childish or tactical reasons. As far as I have been able to understand, this pattern is basically the same as earlier developments in several other European countries – albeit, of course, there are various sorts of national variations in detail. However, this pattern alone does not explain the success of the new European political racism – in particular, it does not explain how established parties can get away with strategy (b), or why they seem to be unable to get a hold on the ideological core of the new racism and simply demolish it, intellectually as well as politically. The rest of this blog is about what this core is, what makes it work politically and, in effect, how to disarm it.

In my view, this is a matter of far more than theoretical importance. One consequence of the above-mentioned inabilities of established political parties and movements has been the occurrence of rather desperate and ill-considered actions of anti-racist groups, such as stopping or trying to stop regular meetings in the course of general election campaigns – not seldom combined or followed by predictable riot-like violence that, equally predictable, has been blown up i media reporting. While the feelings of frustration underlying such events may be understandable, the events themselves have had the actual effect of further strengthening the foothold of the new racism in the Swedish public political landscape. The new racists have been helped to hold out themselves as a voice of reason and civility that is impeded by a senseless minority mob from exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and democratic political action. Again, they have been able to do so thanks to the rather cleverly designed ideological core of the new racism, where all traditional militant insignia and openly racist pejoratives have been carefully weeded out. So, let's return to the nature of this core.

Being a racist in the original sense – advocating different standards of treatment for people belonging to different biological races – is a politically dead concept since the end of the second world war. It became ultimately, irrevocably dead only the other year, when biological scientists declared that the impotency of the human race-taxonomy even as an evolutionary biological explanatory variable had been conclusively proven - biologically speaking, there simply are no human races. However, not even the Nazis where racists in this pure sense – the Nuremberg laws' criteria and even more the practices in Nazi Germany of applying these laws for distinguishing jews from non-jews contained a rather chaotic multitude of socio-cultural signifiers, as did various other taxonomies applied during the heydays of race biology in the first few decades of the 20th century. Possibly, the only pure biological racists in real policy making were the engineers and decision makers during the times of US slavery and the European colonisation of Africa. Rather, the classic real racism is one where one or more socio-cultural signifier (language, customs, worldview, mores...) in combination with physical characteristics, are claimed to be intimately connected to features that provide reason for applying less favorable standards of treatment of people falling into the delimited category than to other people. The first step away from this classic racism of real modern politics is to drop the part about physical characteristics (skin colour, eye or facial shape, height...). The result is the idea that people defined by certain socio-cultural signifiers are therefore possessors of features providing reasons for less favorable treatment, no matter their physical appearance. This has been a much repeated phenomenon over a period of several decades, with the signifier of "muslim" being the latest and possibly most successful.

However, at the same time, this sort of ethno-racism is a very vulnerable position, since it needs to assume the mentioned link between the socio-cultural signifier and the features that are supposed to give reason for less favorable treatment. A nice illustration of this is provided by a smaller part of the debate precluding the Swedish parliamentary election recently: The Sweden Democrats went for the classic link between immigration and crime in order to support their various ideas of impeding extra-european immigration and repatriating the ones already here, based on statistics showing that  immigrants are overrepresented as criminal offenders. However, it was immediately pointed out that, first, the immigrant population that this statistics is based on is made up by predominantly Scandinavian and European people (actually, according to statistics - alas only available in Swedish, but with easy to understand graphs - from the Swedish Migration Board, most immigrants are Swedes!), second, that the immigrant factor is a much more weak predictor of crime than, e.g., a number of socio-economic variables and third, that the part of Swedish crime that the overrepresentation of immigrants stands for is such a tiny portion of the total amount of crime that it could hardly provide much of a reason for less favorable treatment – especially not considering all the negative side-effects that such policies bring. This last argument is, of course, strengthened by the other two.

This is merely one of numerous examples of how the factual and moral foundation of ethno-racist claims has been undermined over and over, not least regarding wild generalisations with regard to muslims or people from alleged "muslim countries" (people that many times are no more muslim than most Swedes, Finns or Danes are christian). But, as a matter of fact, this has not weakened the hold of the new racism to any greater extent. Here is the reason why: The ethno-part is actually not a part of the ideological core of the new racism, it is a shallow cosmetic employed for purely rhetorical purposes. When its weak points are exposed, the new racists merely abandons it without being moved in their basic convictions. So, what are these basic convictions? To get to those, it is instructive to study more closely the way in which the ethno-racist rhetoric is constructed and then transfer this study to actual policy suggestions being made by parties of the new racism. For, as with all politics, it is there – not in the surface of phrases in speeches or slogans – that ideology is to be found.

The attempt by the new racists to use an association with criminality or, for that matter, with religion or particular ways of dressing as an argument is merely a way of trying to convince people that there is a profound difference between "real" Swedes (or Finns, or Brits, or Germans, or Danes, or...) and foreign people. That this, and nothing else, is the heart of the matter for the new racists came out clearer than ever in a TV advertisement by the Sweden Democrats, showing an ever so sweet and very lonesome Swedish old lady being literary overrun by a horde of women dressed in a burqa when trying to pick up her pension – the film making clear that, instead, this money would be spent on immigration. Everybody knows, of course, that the state budget does not determine the size of pensions, the growth of the national economy does. It is also well known that immigration, in fact, is actually one of the more important factors for securing future pensions, since it promotes economic growth. However, let's leave this aside for the moment, for what I want to point to is this: Even if it were true that there is a relation of competition between money for pensions and money for immigration in the state budget, the latter is neither the only nor (by far) the largest expense. However, it is the only expense that is exclusively spent on foreign people. This is why this particular item is picked out in the film: it holds out nationality or national background as the decisive factor for how we are to treat people. The burqas are just for show (albeit rhetorically important), obviously, they are there just to emphasise the felt difference between real Swedes and those from other countries. The message being that the Swedish state should treat people from other countries less favorable than Swedes. I'll get back to that shortly.

First, though, let's have a look at the actual policy suggestions of the Sweden Democrats. Hardly surprising, to the extent that they can be understood or have any originality or significance to speak of, they are about immigration policy. Now, when reading the programme (which, needless to say, is available only in Swedish), one finds that most of the suggestions are actually already a reality (e.g. regarding refugee policy, obligatory visa for people from countries who are terrorist hotspots or sources of organised illegal immigration). Besides the general tone, the talk about "mass-immigration" (a rhetorical misnomer, since, during the last few years, immigration didn't even count for 1% of the total population increase and, since the Sweden Democrats really mean only immigration from outside of Scandinavia - this is clarified in the programme, but since the same principles explaining this applies to EU, I guess immigrants from there are not "real" immigrants either (?) - at least half of this immigration needs to be ignored), unsubstantiated slander of refugees as not being "real" refugees and loose talk about "assimilation" being the main goal of integration policy, the only proposal that stands the test of an initial test-bite is the one about citizenship. The suggestion on this front is a sort of toughed up version of the above-mentioned suggestions from Folkpartiet a few years back: 1. all residence permits are to be temporary (1 year at a time) and revocable also in case of minor criminality, 2. a trial period of ten years where a "blameless character" needs to be demonstrated (exactly how is unclear, but I suppose criminality of any sort is out of the question) is necessary before citizenship is a possibility, 3. a special test (Swedish language, history and societal life) needs to be passed in order for citizenship to be awarded, 4. awarding of citizenship is connected to the signing of a contract where the new citizen swears allegiance "to Sweden" and promises to respect Swedish law, 5. If it is found out that citizenship has been awarded to a person "on false grounds" (whatever that may mean) or - perhaps more significant - after a period of staying in the country on the basis of a residence permit obtained on false grounds (false identities and bribing of immigration officers are given as examples), can have their citizenship revoked and be expelled from the country. There are also a few other suggestions, such as a ban on double citizenship for Swedish citizens, a repatriation programme where the party is apparently prepared to spend a sizable portion of the state budget (ergo, immigration policy can very well be allowed to cost a lot of tax money!) to have immigrants move away from Sweden and drastically weakened legal security for asylum seekers or people who are found in the country lacking a required visa or residence permit, but the above ideas are enough for me to make my point. The point is this: for the Sweden Democrats, there is a tremendous difference between people with a Swedish national background (i.e. people born by Swedish citizens) and other people. The Swedish state is not only permitted but required to apply drastically different standards of treatment with regard to these two groups.

Now, to be fair, there is a lot of talk in the programme about Sweden as a cultural entity, and that the main idea is that citizenship is to be tied to nationality and that Swedish nationality is about being a part of a Swedish "identity". Some of that turns out to be trivialities that are already applied (e.g. that immigrants need to abide by Swedish law), but what about the rest, e.g. loose talk about restricting culturally distant immigration, etcetera? Well, actually, it is obvious that this is just a collection of hot air, very much a part of the shallow rhetoric mentioned earlier. For, assuming the Sweden Democrat policy to have been implemented, if I am born by Swedish citizens nothing compels me to assimilate to an alleged Swedish identity or culture. For sure, we have obligatory school for all children and securing a job will be hard if I don't get (good) grades, but as born by a Swedish citizen I can pass through this system without learning the language or assimilating in any other way without any effect on my citizenship (although I will have to endure other consequences). What is more, I am automatically awarded said citizenship at birth, no questions asked (ever!) about my cultural identity, allegiance declarations, possible past or future criminality or somesuch. And so on. In conclusion: what matters is if you are born by a Swedish citizen or not, nothing else.

This core, then is not about race or ethnicity. Neither is it about patriotism (the my country right or wrong-idea) or nationalism (the idea that citizens of a country have obligations or virtues of love and/or fidelity for/to their country). In lack of a better word, I will call this idea Nationism. This is, roughly, the idea that a state is permitted (or even required) to apply significantly less strict/demanding standards of treatment to people born by citizens of this state, than people who are not. Clarifying further what nationism means will also show what has made the move to this ideological position into the success story of the new racism.

Every country applies less strict/demanding standards of treatment to people born by citizens of this state or, sometimes, also to people who are or have been born within the national territory (or can demonstrate a lineage back to such people), and sometimes to a mix of these – let us call this the Immediate Citizenship Condition (ICC). Minimally, the system applied by countries involves that people not meeting the ICC has to perform according to some pre-set standard (call it the acquired citizenship condition: ACC) in order to be awarded citizenship of this country. This is a pragmatic necessity for any single country in a world organised according to the system of a multitude of nation states. Should a single country award citizenship to a person just by virtue of him being present in the country and wanting citizenship (or simply just that he wants citizenship), many functions supposed to be handled by a country would be severely jeopardized due to the fact that other countries do not reciprocate this courtesy (were they to reciprocate, we would effectively have a world with only one nation state). However, in order for a country to use the division between awarding citizenship by ICC and ACC to dodge this threat, it needs only make the demands made on people by ACC significant enough to make the influx of new citizens manageable. Since, as mentioned, most countries have a significant interest of acquiring new citizens through immigration, there are further reasons in terms of the national interest not to make the demands of the ACC stricter than necessary. The idea of nationism, however, is that it is of some value in itself to make it harder for other people than those meeting the ICC to attain citizenship. Facing this explanation, the question may be asked if the new racists really are nationists – is their idea not simply based on the presumption that it is very demanding to have a country function well and that, therefore, ACC needs to be very strict? Well, as we have seen, this does in fact not seem to be the case, in spite of some rhetoric suggesting such a line of thought. If it were the case that a country needs to be very careful about the characteristics of those who are awarded citizenship for the country to function well, using ICC for awarding citizenship would be sheer recklessness (and the new racists do not want to touch that, quite the opposite). This since that practice makes no demands whatsoever on people who meet the ICC with regard to their personal characteristics for them to attain the status as citizens. So, the new racists are nationists - that is indeed their ideological core.

However, the difference between the nationist position and the purely pragmatically motivated system of awarding citizenship by applying both ICC and ACC is not very obvious to most people. If we don't think carefully about it, most of us would, I suggest, have the feeling that nationism is already an established doctrine – that our countries (and all its political parties) do in fact already accept the idea that it is of value in itself to make a difference between people who meet ICC and those who do not when awarding citizenship. This is understandable, since we are so used to a system making such a difference, and most of us have never had any reason for pondering why such a system is applied – it's just there. This lack of clarity as to the fundamental ideological difference between having such a system for purely pragmatic reasons and having it for nationist reasons can and has indeed been exploited politically by the new racism. For what happens when we do not see the difference clearly is that we are unable to wield the simple and devastating counter-argument to the new racist suggestions that, obviously, the fact whether a person meets ICC or not is not a valid reason as such for less favorable treatment. In particular, established political parties can't say that, since that would imply that they propose that any rules for awarding citizenship that make a difference between people meeting ICC and those that do not are unjustified. And, needless to say, that is not their position and, I take it, not the position taken by most voters. Thus, the fact that the water demarcating the notion of having a system making such a difference for pragmatic reasons and the nationist position has been muddled is of tremendous importance for explaining from the point of view of ideology the recent success of the new European political racism. By exploiting this seemingly grey area, they have been able to whitewash an idea that, when seen clearly, is obviously as implausible as more traditional forms of racism.

Now, nationism is such an obviously implausible idea – as implausible as the idea that your physical or cultural characteristics can by themselves motivate that other people are allowed to treat you less good than others. Morally, nationism is clearly on the same team as the more traditional forms of racism. For this reason, quite a few of the people who have been voting for the new racists in recent elections do probably actually not endorse nationism. One may hope, therefore, that the role of nationism is spotted more clearly and widely (one purpose of this blog post is, of course, to make a contribution to such a development). What is then left for the new racists is to take half a step back to the ethno-racist ideas, but this time without any connection to nationism. What this implies will be the subject of part 2 of this series.