by Peter Staudenmaier
In September 2018, a perceptive article in the left-leaning British magazine New Statesman offered a rare glimpse of the obscure milieu of explicitly racist environmentalism: an anonymous “online community” of “nature-obsessed, antisemitic white supremacists who argue that racial purity is the only way to save the planet.” Made up largely of younger enthusiasts of the far right, this new generation of self-described “eco-fascists” identifies strongly with deep ecology, animal rights, and veganism, opposes industrialisation and urbanisation, and denounces immigration, “overpopulation” and “multiculturalism” as dire threats to the natural world. They celebrate “blood and soil” and look back on Nazi Germany as a paragon of environmental responsibility, casting the Third Reich’s obsession with “Lebensraum” in ecological terms.
Within months, this incongruous ideology burst the boundaries of internet anonymity and made headlines around the world. Two horrific anti-immigrant attacks in 2019, in Christchurch and El Paso, showed that such ideas could have lethal consequences. Both atrocities, which claimed a total of 74 victims, were motivated by environmental concerns. The Christchurch perpetrator declared himself an “eco-fascist.” In the wake of these massacres it became harder to dismiss right-wing ecology as a marginal set of far-fetched beliefs confined to online forums; the combination of environmentalism, nationalism, and anti-immigrant violence proved too virulent to ignore. It nonetheless remains difficult to understand. More thorough consideration of the historical background to right-wing ecology and its contemporary resonance can help make better sense of an enigmatic phenomenon, one that disrupts standard expectations about both environmentalism and right-wing politics.
Though environmental issues have been conventionally associated with the left since the 1960s, the longer history of ecological politics is far more ambivalent. From the emergence of modern environmentalism in the nineteenth century, ecological questions have taken either emancipatory or reactionary form depending on their political context. Early conservationists in the United States often held authoritarian, nationalist, and xenophobic views linked with the predominant racial theories of the era. As a standard study observes, “The conservation movement arose against a backdrop of racism, sexism, class conflicts, and nativism that shaped the nation in profound ways.” Already in the 1870s, American environmental writers blamed “the influx of immigrants” for the decline of natural rural life. For eminent figures like George Perkins Marsh and John Muir, racial biases and hostility toward immigration went hand in hand with protecting the natural world.
Such stances hardened by the early twentieth century. In his 1913 classic Our Vanishing Wild Life, William Temple Hornaday portrayed immigrants as “a dangerous menace to our wild life.” Hornaday, who has been called the “father of the American conservation movement,” was a friend and colleague of Madison Grant, an equally influential conservationist, race theorist, and zealous proponent of eugenics. Racial anxieties were a constituent element in the development of environmentalism in the US. “Perceiving a direct link between the decline of America’s wildlife and the degeneration of the white American race, prominent nature advocates often pushed as hard for the passage of immigration restriction and eugenics legislation as they did for wildlife preservation. For these reformers the three movements became inextricably linked.” This legacy continued throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, impacting everything from wilderness campaigns to pollution regulation to global population programs. Today, “racial narratives are deeply embedded in American environmentalist approaches to international population policy advocacy.”
In Germany, where the term “ecology” was first introduced, early environmental movements shared a similar history. Sometimes considered the homeland of green politics, Germany experienced rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the decades around 1900, with attendant forms of environmental dissent. Many of these proto-green tendencies incorporated authoritarian social views along with powerful national and racial myths. From vegetarianism to organic agriculture to nature protection organisations, race was an essential part of the search for more natural ways of life. Proponents of the “life reform” movement mixed appeals for animal rights, natural health, and alternative nutrition with racist and antisemitic themes. This is the tradition that latter-day “ecofascists” hope to reclaim.
For some contemporary advocates of right-wing ecology, Nazi Germany represents the epitome of environmental ideals in fascist form. In light of the Nazi regime’s appalling record of human and ecological destruction, this adulation strikes many observers as grotesque. As paradoxical as it may seem, however, Nazism included several significant environmental strands. Historians of the Third Reich have increasingly come to recognise “the links between antisemitism, eugenics, and environmentalism that became integral to National Socialism.” To admirers, Nazism’s “green” achievements were embodied above all in the figure of Richard Walther Darré, who served as Hitler’s minister of agriculture and “Reich Peasant Leader” from 1933 to 1942. Far right author Troy Southgate characterises Darré as Nazi Germany’s “finest ecological pioneer,” a committed environmentalist who was “truly the patriarch of the modern Greens.” Southgate writes:
"At Goslar, an ancient medieval town in the Harz mountains, Darré established a peasants’ capital and launched a series of measures designed to regenerate German agriculture by encouraging organic farming and replanting techniques. […] But Darré’s overall strategy was even more radical, and he intended to abolish industrial society altogether and replace it with a series of purely peasant-based communities."
Though thoroughly distorted, this tale contains a kernel of truth. Darré did promote organic agriculture during the final years of his tenure; after initial opposition, he became one of the major Nazi patrons of the biodynamic movement, the most successful variant of organic farming in the Third Reich. But he was hardly the only Nazi leader to do so. Rudolf Hess supported biodynamics more consistently, and even Heinrich Himmler and the SS sponsored biodynamic projects. By the time he adopted the biodynamic cause, moreover, Darré had effectively lost power to rival factions within the party.
Organic farming initiatives nevertheless found many backers in various parts of the Nazi apparatus, at local, regional, and national levels, from interior minister Wilhelm Frick to antisemitic propagandist Julius Streicher. Sustainable agriculture offered fertile ground for ideological crossover and practical cooperation. As a Nazi “life reform” official explained in 1936: “Artificial fertilisers interrupt the natural metabolism between man and his environment, between blood and soil.”
Despite his stature among devotees of right-wing ecology today, Darré was not the most effective example of ecofascism in action in the Nazi era. That dubious honor belongs not to the Reich Peasant Leader but to his sometime ally Alwin Seifert, who bore the equally grandiose title of Reich Advocate for the Landscape. Seifert oversaw a corps of “landscape advocates” with responsibility for environmental planning on Nazi public works projects, most famously the construction of the Autobahn system. As with Darré, Seifert’s position has often been misunderstood. A recent account claims that “the barest minima of ecological politics” were “completely missing” from Nazism, offering this description of Seifert’s team:
"A group of designers with Heimat ideals, called ‘landscape advocates’, imagined that they were embedding the motorways in the landscape, drawing the curves gently, adorning the concrete and asphalt with local stone and freshly planted native flora: perhaps the original greenwashers. Their advice was neglected nearly all the time, and Hitler would not hear of valuable forest groves slowing down his roads. If any peacetime project rode roughshod over conservation, it was the autobahn."
This one-sided image simplifies a complex history and misconstrues the political context. Unlike traditional conservationists, Seifert and his colleagues used their work to advance modern principles of ecological restoration, rehabilitating degraded environments and applying organic techniques across a wide range of landscapes.
Their remit extended far beyond the Autobahn, encompassing rivers and wetlands, reforestation projects, urban green space and rural reclamation, military installations, and “settlement” activities in the occupied East. From France to Ukraine, from Norway to Greece, the environmental efforts of the landscape advocates were woven into the fabric of Nazi occupation policy, which aimed to remake Eastern European lands racially as well as ecologically. Under the auspices of the Third Reich, Seifert and his cohort fused environmental ideals with Nazi tenets and put them into practice in hundreds of concrete instances. They were not alone. Endorsing Seifert’s work, German naturalists proclaimed that ecology was “a true science of blood and soil.” The experience of both the biodynamic movement and the landscape advocates between 1933 and 1945, in the shadow of Germany’s war of annihilation, shows that Nazi ecology was not an oxymoron but a historical reality.
In spite of a growing body of research examining the details of this history, many misconceptions persist about the environmental aspects of Nazism and about the political evolution of green endeavors worldwide. The problem is not new. A quarter of a century ago, ecological philosopher Michael Zimmerman pointed out that “most Americans do not realise that the Nazis combined eugenics with mystical ecology into the perverted ‘green’ ideology of Blut und Boden.” It was not merely a historical question, he explained, but crucial for our future: “in periods of ecological stress and social breakdown, preachers of a ‘green’ fascism might once again find a sympathetic audience.” The attacks in Christchurch and El Paso have tragically confirmed his point, demonstrating that some of those inspired by such ideas are willing to turn words into deeds.
But the breadth of right-wing environmental politics is not reducible to the single category of fascism. Many elements on the established right, particularly in the English-speaking world, maintain a stance of climate change denial and denounce green concerns as frivolous, even as younger and more dynamic forces on the far right push for growing appropriation of environmental themes. In this context, ecofascism is best seen as an especially aggressive tendency within the broader continuum of right-wing ecology. Since most of the right is not fascist, there are relatively few outright ecofascists in most times and places. This does not mean we can safely ignore them. When historical conditions change, currents that were previously marginal can quickly become powerful. For societies like the contemporary US, that is a sobering lesson to keep in mind.
How can scholars respond to this challenge? Resisting the revival of blood and soil politics and countering the appeal of anti-immigrant arguments in green garb calls for informed and reflective participation in public debates. This will involve critically re-examining inherited assumptions about ecology and its social significance. The protean nature of environmental politics, viewed in historical perspective, presents a remarkable spectrum of possibilities, and those concerned about the climate crisis and our broader ecological plight will eventually need to decide where to stand. Alongside the legacy of right-wing environmentalism, there has always been a lively counter-current, an anti-authoritarian, inclusive, and radically democratic strand within ecological thought and practice.
That alternative tradition of environmental politics has many proponents within today’s climate movement, and it points toward a promising future in spite of the bleak present. An ecological approach that affirms social diversity across borders and actively welcomes all communities can withstand the resentments and anxieties of the current moment. Against the callous retreat into exclusion, scarcity, and fear, it advances a profoundly different vision of sustainability and renewal, one that offers hope for people and for the planet we share.
 Sarah Manavis, “Eco-fascism: The ideology marrying environmentalism and white supremacy thriving online” New Statesman 21 September 2018. The article signaled renewed media attention to a previously neglected subject. Another thorough analysis was published a month later: Matthew Phelan, “The Menace of Eco-Fascism” New York Review of Books Daily 22 October 2018.
 Natasha Lennard, “The El Paso Shooter Embraced Eco-Fascism: We Can’t Let the Far Right Co-Opt the Environmental Struggle” The Intercept 5 August 2019; Bernhard Forchtner, “Eco-fascism: Justifications of terrorist violence in the Christchurch mosque shooting and the El Paso shooting” Open Democracy 13 August 2019; Susie Cagle, “The environmentalist roots of anti-immigrant bigotry” The Guardian 16 August 2019; Joel Achenbach, “Two mass murders a world apart share a common theme: ‘Ecofascism’” Washington Post 18 August 2019; Sam Adler-Bell, “Eco-fascism is fashionable again on the far right” New Republic 24 September 2019.
 For recent international coverage see Neil Mackay, “Eco-fascism: how the environment could be a green light for the far right” The Herald 18 April 2020; Daniel Trilling, “How the far right is exploiting climate change for its own ends: Eco-fascists have donned green garb in pursuit of their sinister cause” Prospect Magazine 28 August 2020; Emma Horan, “Eco-Fascism: A Smouldering, Dark Presence in Environmentalism” University Times 23 October 2020; Louise Boyle, “The rising threat of eco-fascism: Far right co-opting environmentalism to justify anti-immigration and anti-Semitic views” The Independent 20 March 2021; Francisca Rockey, “The dangers of eco-fascism” Euronews 21 March 2021; Andy Fleming, “The meanings of eco-fascism” Overland 9 June 2021.
 Adrian Parr, Birth of a New Earth: The Radical Politics of Environmentalism (Columbia University Press 2018), 84; see the full chapter “Fascist Earth” (65-90) for her larger argument.
 Dorceta Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Duke University Press 2016), 9.
 Ibid., 89; see also 213-19 on anti-immigrant resentment as a core feature of the US conservation movement in the early twentieth century. For an influential instance from the latter half of the century see John Tanton, “International Migration as an Obstacle to Achieving World Stability” Ecologist July 1976, 221-27.
 See the fine overview by Carolyn Merchant, “Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History” Environmental History 8 (2003), 380-94.
 William Temple Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wild Life (Scribner’s 1913), 100. Similar anti-immigrant passages can be found in Hornaday’s 1914 Wild Life Conservation in Theory and Practice. Scholars from a variety of fields have noted the role of racial beliefs within his environmental worldview: “Hornaday’s conservation was closely linked to his racism and sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority. He viewed Native Americans, Mexicans, blacks, and immigrants as major threats to wildlife, and he began showing disdain for nonwhites early in his career.” Robert Wilson, American Association of Geographers Review of Books 2 (2014), 48-50.
 Miles Powell, Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation (Harvard University Press 2016), 83. Powell shows that turn of the century conservation leaders “developed racially charged preservationist arguments that influenced the historical development of scientific racism, eugenics, immigration restriction, and population control, and helped lay the groundwork for the modern environmental movement.” (5) Compare Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow, The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden (New York University Press 2011); John Hultgren, Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-Immigrant Politics in America (University of Minnesota Press 2015); Carl Zimring, Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (New York University Press 2016)
 Jade Sasser, “From Darkness into Light: Race, Population, and Environmental Advocacy” Antipode 46 (2014), 1240-57, quote on 1242. Cf. Jael Silliman and Ynestra King, eds., Dangerous Intersections: Feminist Perspectives on Population, Environment, and Development (South End Press 1999); Rajani Bhatia, “Green or Brown? White Nativist Environmental Movements” in Abby Ferber, ed., Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism (Routledge 2004), 194-213; Jade Sasser, On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change (New York University Press 2018); Jordan Dyett and Cassidy Thomas, “Overpopulation Discourse: Patriarchy, Racism, and the Specter of Ecofascism” Perspectives on Global Development & Technology 18 (2019), 205-24; Diana Ojeda, Jade Sasser, and Elizabeth Lunstrum, “Malthus’s Specter and the Anthropocene: Towards a Feminist Political Ecology of Climate Change” Gender, Place & Culture 27 (2020), 316-32.
 Examples include Gustav Simons, “Rasse und Ernährung” Kraft und Schönheit 4 (1904), 156-59; Hermann Löns, “Naturschutz und Rasseschutz” in Löns, Nachgelassene Schriften vol. 1 (Leipzig 1928), 486-91; Paul Krannhals, Das organische Weltbild (Munich 1928); Werner Altpeter, “Erneuerung oder Rassetod?” Neuform-Rundschau January 1934, 8-10.
 Compare Joseph Huber, “Fortschritt und Entfremdung: Ein Entwicklungsmodell des ökologischen Diskurses” in Dieter Hassenpflug, ed., Industrialismus und Ökoromantik: Geschichte und Perspektiven der Ökologisierung (Wiesbaden 1991), 19-42; Ulrich Linse, “Das ‘natürliche’ Leben: Die Lebensreform” in Richard van Dülmen, ed., Erfindung des Menschen (Vienna 1998), 435-56; Bernd Wedemeyer, “‘Zurück zur deutschen Natur’: Theorie und Praxis der völkischen Lebensreformbewegung” in Rolf Brednich, ed., Natur – Kultur: Volkskundliche Perspektiven auf Mensch und Umwelt (Münster 2001), 385-94; Jost Hermand, “Die Lebensreformbewegung um 1900 - Wegbereiter einer naturgemäßeren Daseinsform oder Vorboten Hitlers?” in Marc Cluet and Catherine Repussard, eds., “Lebensreform”: Die soziale Dynamik der politischen Ohnmacht (Tübingen 2013), 51-62.
 See the extended argument in Peter Staudenmaier, “Right-wing Ecology in Germany: Assessing the Historical Legacy” in Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, Ecofascism Revisited (New Compass 2011), 89-132.
 Robert Gellately, Hitler’s True Believers: How Ordinary People Became Nazis (Oxford University Press 2020), 22; cf. Simo Laakkonen, “Environmental Policies of the Third Reich” in Laakkonen, ed., The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of the Second World War (Oregon State University Press 2017), 55-74; Charles Closmann, “Environment” in Shelley Baranowski, ed., A Companion to Nazi Germany (Wiley 2018), 413-28.
 Troy Southgate, “Blood & Soil: Revolutionary Nationalism as the Vanguard of Ecological Sanity” in Southgate, Tradition & Revolution (Arktos 2010), 74-84, quotes on 78-79. Southgate’s account draws heavily on the work of Anna Bramwell, whose 1985 book Blood and Soil: Richard Walther Darré and Hitler’s ‘Green Party’ is the source of a number of legends about Darré. Among other fundamental problems, Bramwell’s book downplays Darré’s fervent antisemitism and denies his role in promoting expansionist aims in Eastern Europe.
 Peter Staudenmaier, “Organic Farming in Nazi Germany: The Politics of Biodynamic Agriculture, 1933-1945” Environmental History 18 (2013), 383-411.
 Franz Wirz quoted in Corinna Treitel, Eating Nature in Modern Germany: Food, Agriculture and Environment, c. 1870-2000 (Cambridge University Press 2017), 212. Nazi enthusiasm for organic practices was not as surprising as it may appear. “In early twentieth century Germany,” Treitel notes, “ecological agriculture and its biological approach to farming belonged decisively to the right.” (188) The same pattern can be traced in France, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere, with significant overlap between the early organic milieu and the far right.
 Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism (Verso 2021), 462 and 466. They insist that “no ecological Nazism could possibly have existed” (470).
 For a detailed view of the current state of research see Peter Staudenmaier, “Advocates for the Landscape: Alwin Seifert and Nazi Environmentalism” German Studies Review 43 (2020), 271-90. Some of the existing scholarship on Seifert and his associates displays a curious tendency to portray these figures as either not really environmentalists or not really Nazis, reluctant to acknowledge that they were both at once.
 Karl Friederichs, Ökologie als Wissenschaft von der Natur (Leipzig 1937), 79.
 Michael Zimmerman, “The Threat of Ecofascism” Social Theory and Practice 21 (1995), 207-38, quotes on 222 and 231. “Blut und Boden” is the original German phrase meaning “blood and soil.”
 As Bernhard Forchtner and Balša Lubarda aptly observe, “eco-fascism should not dominate our understanding of the wider radical right’s relationship with nature.” (Forchtner and Lubarda, “Eco-fascism ‘proper’” Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right 25 June 2020) For a range of perspectives on these complex questions compare Efadul Huq and Henry Mochida, “The Rise of Environmental Fascism and the Securitization of Climate Change” Projections 30 March 2018; Betsy Hartmann, “The Ecofascists” Columbia Journalism Review Spring 2020, 18-19; Hilary Moore, Burning Earth, Changing Europe: How the Racist Right Exploits the Climate Crisis and What We Can Do about It (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung 2020); Sam Knights, “The Climate Movement Must Be Ready To Challenge Rising Right-Wing Environmentalism” Jacobin 16 November 2020; Balša Lubarda, “Beyond Ecofascism? Far-Right Ecologism as a Framework for Future Inquiries” Environmental Values 29 (2020), 713-32.
 On the US see Blair Taylor, “Alt-right ecology: Ecofascism and far-right environmentalism in the United States” in Bernhard Forchtner, ed., The Far Right and the Environment: Politics, Discourse and Communication (Routledge 2019), 275-92; Kevan Feshami, “A Mighty Forest Is Our Race: Race, Nature, and Environmentalism in White Nationalist Thought” Drain Magazine February 2020; Beth Gardiner, “White Supremacy Goes Green” New York Times 1 March 2020; Daniel Rueda, “Neoecofascism: The Example of the United States” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 14 (2020), 95-125; Alex Amend, “Blood and Vanishing Topsoil: American Ecofascism Past, Present, and in the Coming Climate Crisis” Political Research Associates 9 July 2020; April Anson, “No One Is A Virus: On American Ecofascism” Environmental History Now 21 October 2020.
by Fabio Wolkenstein
One of the more interesting political developments in contemporary Europe is the migration of the language that has originally been used to describe what Europe is. This language has migrated from the vocabulary of centre-right politicians, who were committed to unifying Europe and creating a more humane political order on the continent, to the speeches and campaigns of nativists, nationalists and ultraconservatives.
The idea of “Christian Europe”
Consider to start with the notion of Abendland, which may be translated as “occident” or, more accurately, “Christian West.” In the immediate post-war era, the term had been a shorthand for Europe in the predominantly Catholic Christian-democratic milieu whose political representatives played a central role in the post-war unification of Europe; indeed, the “founding fathers” of European integration, Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman and Alcide De Gasperi, were convinced that – as De Gasperi put it in a 1954 speech – “Christianity lies at the origin of … European civilisation.”
By Christianity was primarily meant a common European cultural heritage. De Gasperi, an Italian educated in Vienna around 1900, whose first political job was in the Imperial Council of Austria-Hungary, spoke of a “shared ethical vision that fosters the inviolability and responsibility of the human person with its ferment of evangelic brotherhood, its cult of law inherited from the ancients, its cult of beauty refined through the centuries, and its will for truth and justice sharpened by an experience stretching over more than a thousand years.”
All of this, many Christian Democratic leaders thought, demarcates Europe from the superficial consumerism of the United States – however welcome the help of the American allies was after WW2 – and, even more importantly, the materialist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. Europe is culturally distinctive, and that distinctiveness must be affirmed and preserved to unite the continent at avoid a renewed descent into chaos.
This image of Europe figured prominently in the Christian Democrats’ early election campaigns. In 1946, a campaign poster of the newly-founded Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) featured the slogan “Rettet die abendländische Kultur” – “Save abendländische culture.” The poster boasts a bright depiction of the allegorical figure Ecclesia from Bamberg Cathedral, which is meant to represent the superiority of the Church. And Ecclesia faces the logo of the SED, the East German Communist Party, which was founded the same year.
The message was clear: a democracy “rooted in the Christian-abendländisch worldview, in Christian natural law, in the principles of Christian ethics,” as Adenauer himself put it in a famous speech at the University of Cologne, had to be cultivated and defended against so-called “materialist” worldviews that represented nothing less than the negation of Christian principles, and by extension the negation of moral truth. In Adenauer’s view, Europe was “only possible” if the different peoples of Europe came together to contribute not only economically to recovering from the war, but also culturally to “abendländisch thinking, poetry.”
This idea of Europe also resonated with General Charles De Gaulle, who served as the first French president after the founding of the Fifth Republic, and who became a natural ally for Adenauer and German Catholic Christian Democrats. De Gaulle certainly had a more nation-centric vision of European integration than Adenauer, and he resisted the idea that supranational institutions should play a central role in the integration processes – but he likewise envisioned a concert of European peoples that shared a common Christian civilisation. These nations should, in De Gaulle’s words, become “an extension of each other,” and their shared cultural roots should facilitate this process.
The Italian historian Rosario Forlenza aptly summarised De Gaulle’s views on Europe as follows: “When le général famously spoke of a Europe ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’ he was in fact conjuring up, quite in line with the Abendland tradition, a continental western European bloc based on a Franco-German entente that could stand on its own both militarily and politically: a Europe independent from the United States and Russia.” In his memoirs, moreover, De Gaulle asserted that the European nations have “the same Christian origins and the same way of life, linked to one another since time immemorial by countless ties of thought, art, science, politics and trade.” No wonder many Christian Democrats saw Gaullism as “a kind of Christian Democracy without Christ.”
European integration from shared culture to markets
However, those political leaders who conceived Europe as a cultural entity were gradually disappearing. De Gasperi died already in 1954, Adenauer died in 1967, and De Gaulle resigned his presidency in 1969 and died one year later. Robert Schuman, the other famous Christian Democratic “founding father,” who has been put on the path to sainthood by Pope Francis in June 2021, died in 1963. Replacing them were younger and more pragmatic political leaders, many of whom believed that free trade was better able to bring the nations of Europe closer to each other than shared cultural roots.
Culture was not considered irrelevant, to be sure – this is why hardly anyone considered admitting a Muslim country like Turkey to the European Communities. But the idea of a Christian Europe whose member countries shared a distinctive heritage, which performed the important function of unifying an earlier generation of centre-right politicians, was gradually superseded by the much less concrete notion of “freedom” as a sort of telos of European integration. Already in the late 1970s, powerful conservative leaders such as Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher converged on the vision that European integration should secure freedom. “Freedom instead of socialism” was the CDU’s 1976 election slogan, which was quite different from “Save abendländische culture” in 1946. Socialism remained the primary enemy – but it should be fought with free markets, not Christian ethics and natural law, as Adenauer believed.
Importantly, foregrounding the notion of freedom and de-emphasising thick conceptions of a shared European culture also facilitated the gradual expansion of the pan-European network of conservative parties from the mid-1970s onwards. Transnationally-minded Realpolitiker like Kohl realised already in the mid-1970s that integrating “Christian democratic and conservative traditions and parties” from non-Catholic countries into the European People’s Party and related transnational organisations was crucial to avoid political marginalisation in the constantly expanding European Communities. And many new potential allies, perhaps most notably Scandinavian conservative parties who obviously had no Catholic pedigree, would have shrunk from the idea of joining a Christian Abendland modelled in the image of Charlemagne’s empire.
The re-emergence of the language of Christian Europe
At any rate, while the language of a Europe defined by shared culture gradually disappeared from the vocabulary of centre-right politicians, decades later it re-appeared elsewhere. It was adopted by political actors who are often categorised as “right-wing populists” – more accurately, we might call them nativists, nationalists and ultraconservatives. These sorts of political movements have discovered and re-purposed the culturalist narrative of a “Christian Europe.”
In the German-speaking world, even the notion of Abendland made a comeback on the right fringes. The Alternative für Deutschland (or AfD), Germany’s moderately successful hard-right party, commits itself in its main party manifesto to the “preservation” of “abendländisch Christian culture.” The closely related anti-immigrant movement PEGIDA even has Abendland in its name: the acronym stands for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicisation of the Abendland.” The Austrian Freedom Party, one of the more long-standing ultraconservative nationalist parties in Europe, used the Slogan “Abendland in Christenhand,” meaning “Abendland in the hands of Christians” in the 2009 European Elections.
Even more striking are the increasing appeals to the idea of Christian Europe that resound in Central and Eastern Europe. The political imaginaries of the likes of Viktor Orbán – the pugnacious Hungarian prime minister who has transformed Hungary into an “illiberal democracy” – and Jarosław Kaczyński and his Polish Law and Justice party, are defined by an understanding of Europe as a culturally Christian sphere. And they claim to preserve and defend this Europe, especially against the superficial, culturally corrosive social liberalism of the West, which they consider a major threat to its shared values and traditions.
Orbán even seeks to link the notion of Christian Europe to the ideological tradition of Christian Democracy. Not only has he repeatedly called for a “Christian Democratic renaissance” that should involve a return to the values and ideas of the post-war era. In February 2020, when the European People’s Party – the European alliance of Christian Democratic parties – seemed increasingly willing to expel Orbán’s party Fidesz due to the undemocratic developments in Hungary, he even drafted a three-page memorandum for the European Christian Democrats.
In this memorandum, a most remarkable document for anyone interested in political ideologies, he listed all the sort of things that Christian Democrats “originally” stood for – from being “anti-communist” and “pro-subsidiarity” to being “committed representatives … of the Christian family model and the matrimony of one man and one woman.” However, he added, “We have created an impression that we are afraid to declare and openly accept who we are and what we want, as if we were afraid of losing our share of governmental authority because of ourselves.” To save itself, and to save Europe, a return to the ideological roots of Christian Democracy is needed; or so Orbán argued.
In sum, the language of Europe as a thick cultural community, the idea of a Christian Europe, and indeed some core elements of the ideology of Christian Democracy itself – all this has migrated to other sectors of the political spectrum and to Eastern Europe. Ideas and concepts that after WWII were part of the centre-right’s ideological repertoire are now used by nativists and ultraconservative nationalists, and used in order to justify their exclusivist Christian identity politics.
Note that the Eastern European parties and politicians who today reach for the narrative of Christian Europe stand for a broader backlash against the previously-hegemonic, unequivocally market-liberal and pro-Western forces that made many Western European centre-right leaders enthusiastically support Eastern Enlargement in the early 2000s. For the Polish Law and Justice party not only rejects liberal views about same sex-marriage, abortion, etc.; several of its redistributive policies also mark “a rupture with neoliberal orthodoxy,” and thus a departure from the policies of the business-friendly, pro-EU Civic Platform government of Donald Tusk, which Kaczyński’s party replaced in 2015. In Orbán’s Hungary, free-market policies have largely remained in place – especially when Orbán and his cronies profited from them – yet the recent “renationalisation of the pension system [and] significantly increased spending on active labour market policies … point towards an increasing … role of the state in social protection.”
Understanding the migration of language
One interesting interpretation of this development frames it in terms of a revolt of Eastern – and indeed Western – European nativists and nationalists against a perceived imperative to be culturally liberal and anti-nationalist. Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes perceptively note that “[t]he ultimate revenge of the Central and East European populists against Western liberalism is not merely to reject the ‘imitation imperative’, but to invert it. We are the real Europeans, Orbán and Kaczyński claim, and if the West wants to save itself, it will have to imitate the East.”
While there is much to be learned from this analysis, another reading of the eastward and rightward migration of culturalist understandings of Europe is available. This starts from the observation that talking about Europe as a geographical space defined by a deeply rooted common culture implies talking also about where Europe ends, where its cultural borders lie. Recall that the Europe envisaged by the Christian Democratic “founding fathers” and by De Gaulle was a much smaller, more limited entity than today’s European Union with its 27 member states. They believed, for example, that there were profound cultural differences between the abendländisch, predominantly Catholic Europe and Protestant Britain and Scandinavia. De Gaulle was in fact fervently opposed to admitting Britain to the European Communities and famously vetoed Britain’s applications to join in 1963 and 1967.
If talking about Europe in cultural terms necessarily involves talking about cultural boundaries, then it is perhaps not surprising that today’s nativists, nationalists and ultraconservatives came to endorse a culturalist understanding of Europe. After all, these are virtually the only political actors who indulge in talking about borders and attribute utmost importance to problematising and politicising cultural difference. Seen in this light, it is only natural that the once-innocuous notion that Europe has, as it were, “cultural borders” finds a home with them.
Revisiting the question of European culture
One need not endorse the political projects of Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński and their allies to acknowledge that the questions they confront us with merit attention. What is Europe, if it is an entity defined by shared culture? And, by extension, where does Europe end? Not only those who simply do not want to leave it up to nativists, nationalists and ultraconservatives to define what Europe is, culturally speaking, will need to ponder these questions. Where Europe ends is also a highly pertinent issue in current European geopolitics, and interestingly, it seems as though key EU figures are gradually converging on a position that structurally resembles a view that was prominent on the centre-right in the post-war era – without linking it to narratives about shared culture.
Indeed, with the Von der Leyen Commission’s commitment to “strategic autonomy” and the objective to ascertain European sovereignty over China, the original Christian Democratic and Gaullist theme of Europe as independent “third” global power has returned with a vengeance – just that independence today means independence from the United States and China, not the United States and Soviet Russia (though Russia remains a menacing presence). However, whereas De Gaulle and Christian Democratic “Gaullists” saw Europe’s Christian origins and a shared way of life as the backbone of geopolitical autonomy, the President of the Commission limits herself to mentioning the “unique single market and social market economy, a position as the world’s first trading superpower and the world’s second currency” as the sort of things that make Europe distinctive.
Much like earlier pragmatically-minded politicians, then, von der Leyen mostly speaks the language of markets – and of moral universalism: “We must always continue to call out human rights abuses,” she routinely insists with an eye to China. But it is doubtful whether human rights talk or free market ideology are sufficient to render plausible claims to “strategic autonomy.” Being by definition boundary-insensitive and global in outlook, they are little able to furnish a convincing argument for why Europe should be more autonomous.
Perhaps the notion of “strategic autonomy” is actually much more about a shared European “way of life” than present EU leaders, unlike their post-war predecessors, are willing to admit. Why else would von der Leyen also want to appoint a “vice president for protecting our European way of life,” whilst describing China as “systemic rival” and even cautiously expressing uncertainty about the ally-credentials of post-Trump America? Here, the twin questions of European culture and where Europe ends, come into view again. And it seems by all means worthwhile to speak more about that – without adopting the narrow and exclusionary narratives of Orbán and Kaczyński or wishing for a return to post-war Christian Democracy or Gaullism.
 Cited in Rosario Forlenza, ‘The Politics of the Abendland: Christian Democracy and the Idea of Europe after the Second World War’, Contemporary European History 26(2) (2017), 269.
 Konrad Adenauer, (1946) Rede in der Aula der Universität zu Köln, 24 March 1946. Available at https://www.konrad-adenauer.de/quellen/reden/1946-03-24-uni-koeln, accessed 15 May 2020.
 Forlenza, ‘The Politics of the Abendland’, 270.
 Charles de Gaulle, Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavor (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971), 171.
 Ronald J. Granieri, ‘Politics in C Minor: The CDU/CSU between Germany and Europe since the Secular Sixties’, Central European History 42(1) (2009), 18.
 Josef Hien and Fabio Wolkenstein, ‘Where Does Europe End? Christian Democracy and the Expansion of Europe’, Journal of Common Market Studies (forthcoming).
 Martin Steber, Die Hüter der Begriffe: Politische Sprachen des Konservativen in Großbritannien und der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1945-1980 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017), 410-422.
 Wolfram Kaiser, Christian Democracy and the Origins of European Union (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 316.
 Alternative für Deutschland, Programm für Deutschland (2016) Available at https://cdn.afd.tools/wp-content/uploads/sites/111/2018/01/Programm_AfD_Druck_Online_190118.pdf, accessed 16 September 2020.
 Cabinet Office of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at a conference held in memory of Helmut Kohl (16 June 2018), Available at: http://www.miniszterelnok.hu/prime-minister-viktor-orbans-speech-at-a-conference-held-in-memory-of-helmut-kohl/, accessed 10 June 2020.
 Fidesz, Memorandum on the State of the European People’s Party, February 2020.
 Olivier Roy, Is Europe Christian? (London: Hurst, 2019), 118-214.
 Gavin Rae, ‘In the Polish Mirror’, New Left Review 124 (July/Aug 2020), 99.
 Dorothee Bohle and Béla Greskovits, ‘Politicising embedded neoliberalism: continuity and change in Hungary’s development model’, West European Politics, 1072.
 Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, ‘Imitation and its Discontents’, Journal of Democracy 29(3) (2018), 127.
 Jolyon Howorth, Europe and Biden: Towards a New Transatlantic Pact? (Brussels: Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, 2021).
 Speech by President von der Leyen at the EU Ambassadors’ Conference 2020, 10 November 2020. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_20_2064, accessed 22 June 2021.
 As Quinn Slobodian convincingly argues, free market ideology ultimately seeks to achieve a global market with minimal governmental regulations, see Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).
by Iain MacKenzie
Twenty years ago, the lines of debate between different versions of critically-oriented social and political theory were a tangled mess of misunderstandings and obfuscations. The critics of historicist metanarratives were often merged under the banner of postmodernism, grouped together in (sometimes surprising) couplings—postmodernism and poststructuralism, poststructuralism and post-Marxism, deconstruction and postmodernism—or strung together in a lazy list of these terms (and others) that usually ended with the customary ‘etc.’. Although this was partly the result of ‘posties’ still figuring out the detail of their respective challenges to and positions within modern critical thought, it was also a way of finding shelter together in a not altogether welcoming intellectual environment.
This is because it was not only the proponents of various post-isms who were unsure of what they were defending, it was also that the critics of these post-isms were indiscriminately attacking all the post-isms as one. They would cast their critical responses far and wide seeking to catch all in the nets of performative contradiction, cryptonormativism and quietism. ‘Unravelling the knots’ proposed one way of clarifying one post-ism—poststructuralism—as a small step toward inviting other posties to clarify their own position and critics to take care to avoid bycatch as they trawled the political seas. That was twenty years ago: has anything changed?
In many respects, yes; but not always for the better. Within the academy, taking course and module content as a rough indicator, poststructuralism has become domesticated. Once a wild and unruly animal within the house of ideas, it is now a rascally but beloved pet that we all know how to handle. In political studies, this domestication has come in two ways. First, it has become customary to acknowledge one’s embeddedness within regimes of power/knowledge, such that almost everyone of a critical orientation is (apparently) a Foucauldian now. Second, it has become commonplace to study discourses and how they shape identities, adding this to the methodological repertoire of political science. These two simple gestures often merit the titular rubric ‘A Poststructuralist Approach’ and yet they often remain undertheorised in the manner discussed in the original article. Often, there is neither a fully-fledged account of the emergence of structures nor an account of how meaning is constituted through the relations of difference that define linguistic and other structures.
Without such in-depth accounts, we are left with empirically rich but ultimately descriptive accounts of how social forces impinge on meaning, which can have its place, or the treatment of language as a data source to be mined in search of attractive word clouds (or equivalents), which can also have its place. Whatever these claims and methods produce, however, it is not helpful to call them ‘poststructuralist’. There is still a need for the exclusive but non-deadening definition of this term, so that it is not confused with the tame house pet with which it is associated today. Part of the problem is that the discussion of how structures of meaning emerge and how they function through processes of differentiation before any dynamics of identification requires, let’s say in a Foucauldian tone, the hard work of genealogy: the patient, gray and meticulous work of the archivist combined with the lively critical work of the engaged activist. But, these days, who has the patience, and the energy, for genealogy?
And, in many respects, the difficulties associated with constructing intricate ‘histories of the present’ have led to a tendency to short-circuit the genealogical process (and other poststructuralist methods) under the name of ‘social constructivism’. It is a shorthand, however, that has generated new entanglements, new knots, that have come to define what those of us with a long enough memory can only regret are now frequently labelled the culture wars. On one side, there are the alleged heirs of the posties, awake to the constructed nature of everything and the subtleties of all forms of oppression. On the other side, there are the new defenders of Enlightenment maturity striving to protect science from constructivism and to guard free-speech from the ‘cultural Marxists’.
This epithet, of course, is the surest sign that we are in a phoney war—albeit one with real casualties—as it mimics the trawling habits of previous critics but industrialises them on a massive scale. Claims about the deleterious effects of ‘cultural Marxists’ and their social constructivist premisses simply scrape the seabed and leave it barren. But much like the debate twenty years ago, those seeking to defend ‘social constructivism’ cannot swim out of the way unless they specify that this, and other phrases like it, should never be used to end an argument. There is no use in proclaiming a social constructivism if, after all, the social itself is constructed. Shorthand is always helpful but only if we know that it is exactly that and that it will always need careful exposition and explication when critics raise the call.
Moreover, what is often forgotten, in the heat of battle, is that the task is not simply to clarify one’s own claims in response to critics but to reflect upon the nature of critical exchange itself. One side of the culture wars take lively spirited debate as the signal of a flourishing marketplace of ideas. Those on the side of social construction appear to agree, simply wanting it to be a regulated marketplace of ideas. What poststructuralism brings to market is succour for neither side. Forms of critical engagement bereft of analyses of the current structures of socially mediated critical practice will always fall short of the poststructuralist project and typically dissolve into the impoverished forms of communicative exchange that never rise above the to-and-fro of opinion. It is incumbent, therefore, on poststructuralists to have a view on the nature of public interaction through social media and how these interlock with different forms of algorithmic governmentality. In this way, the social constructivist shorthand can be given real critical purchase by delving deeply into the nature of public discourse and the technological forms that sustain it, particularly because these make state intervention in the name of ‘the public’ increasingly difficult (even though they can also be used, to a certain extent, for statist purposes).
That said, the culture wars obfuscate a deeper misunderstanding about poststructuralism. To grasp this, however, it is important to be reminded of the overarching project of poststructuralism: it is a project aimed at completing the structuralist critique of humanism. It is important to specify this a little further. Humanism can be understood as the project of bringing meaning ‘down to earth’ so that it is in human rather than divine hands. Given this, we can articulate structuralism in a particular way: it was a series of responses to the ways in which humanism tended to treat the human being as a surreptitiously God-like entity and source of all meaning. Structuralism was the project aimed at completing the founding gesture of humanism. Poststructuralism simply recognises that there are tendencies within structuralism that similarly treat structures as analogous to God-like entities that serve as the basis of all meaning.
In this respect, poststructuralism is the attempt to complete the project of structuralism, which was itself aimed at completing the project of humanism. When we understand poststructuralism in this manner it is an approach to thinking (and doing) that seeks to remove the last vestiges of enchanted, supernatural, forces, entities and explanations from all theoretical and practical activity, including science but also philosophy and the arts (broadly understood). Given this, there is no room for a pseudo-divine notion of the social that often haunts ‘social constructivism’. Indeed, given this articulation of its project, poststructuralism is hardly anti-science (as some in the culture wars might claim); rather, it is a project of understanding meaning in every respect without reinstating a source of meaning that stands ‘outside’ or ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ the world that we inhabit. In fact, poststructuralists (though not all posties) are rather fond of science and they certainly do not want to undermine the natural sciences in the name of lazy ‘social constructivism’. It is, in fact, a way of seeking better science with help of philosophy, and a way of seeking better philosophy with the help of science (and for the full sense of what’s at stake, this gesture should be triangulated through inclusion of the arts).
But how can there be a ‘better’ if the posties, including the poststructuralists, are sceptical of metanarratives? This question brings us to one of the more fruitful aspects that has changed in the last twenty years. The most interesting challenge faced by poststructuralists in recent times has come from the emergence of forms of neo-rationalism looking to reinvigorate critical philosophy through pragmatically oriented forms of Kantianism and non-totalising forms of Hegelianism. From the neo-rationalist perspective, poststructuralism has failed in its attempts to naturalise meaning, to take it away from explanations that rely upon supernatural forces, to the extent that it is reliant upon a transcendent notion of Life that treats the priority of becoming over being as given. This immanent critique of poststructuralism cuts much closer to the bone than the Critical Theory inspired fishing which cast their nets wide but always from the harbour of their own shores.
At the heart of this dispute is whether or not what we know about the world and how we know what we know about the world can be articulated within a single theoretical framework. For the neo-rationalist, it is (in principle, at least) possible to work on the assumption that there is an underlying unity between ontology and epistemology founded upon a specific conception of reason-giving. For poststructuralists, exploration of the conditions of experience suggests a dynamic distance between the what and the how, such that the task is to secure the claims of philosophy, art and science as equal routes into our understanding of both. While this reconstitutes a certain return to the pre-critical debates between rationalists and empiricists, it is equally indebted to the critical turn with respect to the shared task of legitimating knowledge claims, but with a pragmatic or practical twist. Both the neo-rationalists and the poststructuralists pragmatically assess the worth of the knowledge produced by virtue of the challenges they proffer to arguments that rely upon a transcendent God-like entity and the dominant form of this today; namely, the sense of self-identity that underpins capitalist endeavours to maximise profit.
This critical perspective, perhaps surprisingly, was seeded within the fertile soil of American pragmatism. For the pragmatists—and we might think especially of Pierce, Sellars, and Dewey—it is the practical application of philosophy that engenders standards of truth, rightness and value. Admittedly, in the hands of its founding fathers, this practical application was often guided by the idea of maintaining the status quo. But that is not essential. Neo-rationalists and poststructuralists have found a shared concern with the idea that philosophical practice should be guided by the critique of capitalist forms of thought and life. As such, they share a common ground upon which meaningful discussion can be forged, aside from the culture wars (which are simply a reflex of capitalist identitarian thinking). While deep-seated divisions remain—does the knowledge generated by social practices of reason giving trump the experience of creative learning or are they on the same cognitive footing?—the shared sense of seeking a critical but non-final standard for what counts as better (better than the identity-oriented thinking sustaining capitalism) is driving much of the most productive debate and discussion at the present time. Work of this kind reminds us that poststructuralism is still a wild animal rather than a domesticated house pet, that it is a critical project but also one that has political intent.
That said, it is not always easy to convey the political dimension of poststructuralism, especially given the vexed question of its relationship to ideology. As discussed in the original article, part of the initial excitement about poststructuralism was that its major figures distanced themselves from the idea of ideology critique. However, this was only ever the beginning of a complex story about the relationship of poststructuralism to ideology and never the end. While Marxist notions of ideology were critiqued for the ways in which they incorporated notions of the transcendental subject, naïve versions of what counts as real and over-inflated notions of truth, poststructuralists have always endorsed the power of individual subjects to express complex notions of reality and historically sensitive and effective notions of truth, and to do so against dominant social and political formations. These formations are often given unusual names—dispositif, assemblages, discourses, and such like—but the aim of unsettling and ultimately unseating the dogmatic images and frozen practices of social and political life is not too distant from that animating Marxism. Of course, as Deleuze and Guattari expressed it, any revised Marxism needs to be informed by significant doses of Nietzscheanism and Freudianism (just as these need large doses of Marxism if they are to avoid becoming critically quietest and practically relevant for the critique of capitalism).
What results, though, is an immanent version of ideology critique rather than a rejection of it tout court: there are many assemblages/ideologies that dominate our thoughts, feelings and behaviour and it is possible to learn how they operate by making a difference to how they function and reproduce themselves. In searching for the natural bases of meaningful worlds it is no surprise that poststructuralists have become adept at diagnoses of how natural processes can lead to systems of meaning that import supernatural fetishes into our everyday lives, and how these are sustained in ways even beyond merely serving the interests of the economically powerful. There appear to be an endless number of these knots that need untying. If we want to untie at least some of them, then unravelling the knots that currently have poststructuralism tangled up in a phoney culture war is another small step on the road to bringing a meaningful life fully down to earth.
 I.MacKenzie, ‘Unravelling the knots: post-structuralism and other “post-isms”’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 6 (3), 2001, pp. 331–45.
 I. MacKenzie and R. Porter, ‘Drama out of a crisis? Poststructuralism and the Politics of Everyday Life’, Political Studies Review, 15 (4), 2017, pp. 528–38.
 One of the interesting features of the recent history of poststructuralism is that it is not the same across disciplines. Of course, this need for disciplinary specificity with respect to how knowledge is disrupted, new forms of knowledge established and then domesticated is part of what poststructuralism offers. That said, much of what follows can be read across various disciplines in the arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences to the extent that the legacies of humanism and historicism traverse these disciplines.
 M. Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in D. Bouchard (ed.) Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault (New York: Cornell University Press, 1992 ), pp. 139–64.
 B. Dillet, I. MacKenzie and R. Porter (eds) The Edinburgh Companion to Poststructuralism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).
 A. Rouvroy, ‘The End(s) of Critique: data-behaviourism vs due-process’ in M. Hildebrandt and E. De Vries (eds), Privacy, Due Process and the Computational Turn. Philosophers of Law Meet Philosophers of Technology (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 143–68.
 See R. Brassier’s engagment with the work of Wilfrid Sellars, for example: 'Nominalism, Naturalism, and Materialism: Sellars' Critical Ontology' in B. Bashour and H. Muller (eds) Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications (Routledge: London, 2013).
 R. Porter, Ideology: Contemporary Social, Political and Cultural Theory (Cardiff: Wales University Press, 2006) and S. Malešević and I. MacKenzie (eds), Ideology After Poststructuralism (Oxford: Pluto Press, 2002).
 G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Viking Press, 1977). This triangulation of the philosophers of suspicion, with a view to completing the Kantian project of critique, is one especially insightful way of reading this provocative text: see E. Holland, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to Schizoanalysis (London: Routledge, 2002).
by Alain Noël and Jean-Philippe Thérien
In recent years, several analysts have contended that the old cleavage between left and right has faded gradually, to become less central politically than it once was. The end of communism, the unchallenged victory of market capitalism, and the rise of neoliberalism narrowed the distance between parties of the left and of the right, and reduced the range of options available in political debates. Yet, although the left-right distinction may have become blunter as a cognitive instrument for politicians and voters, numerous studies show that it has not been replaced. In fact, no ideological cleavage is more encompassing and ubiquitous than the opposition between the left and the right.
When asked, most people across the world are able to locate themselves on a left-right scale, which basically divides those who support or oppose social change in the direction of greater equality. Ideological self-positioning also tends to be in line with the values and policy preferences associated with one of the two sides. The strength of this left-right schema, however, varies significantly among countries. In some cases, left-right positions correlate strongly with expected attitudes about equality, the state, the market, or social diversity; in others, they do not. We know little about the factors that make the left-right opposition more or less effective in structuring national debates. At best, existing studies suggest that left-right ideology is a more powerful constraint in Western democracies than elsewhere. To assess this question, we have taken the measure of cross-national variations in left-right ideology in 83 societies, and linked them to various factors, including economic development, secularisation, and the age of democracy.
Instead of focusing on individual determinants of ideology such as social class, gender or education, as scholars generally do, our analysis looks at country-level survey evidence and evaluates how, in each country, political debates are framed, or not framed, in left-right terms. The idea, along the lines suggested by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, is to take the mass attitudes measured by large-N comparative survey projects as “stable attributes of given societies,” and as indicative of a country’s elites’ success in structuring politics along left-right dimensions. More specifically, we consider answers to twelve survey questions that capture the standard dimensions of the left-right political distinction. All answers were collected between 2008 and 2014 through the World Values Survey (WVS) and the European Values Study (EVS). The twelve questions include, for each society, one on individual left-right self-positioning, and eleven related to issues that have historically divided the two sides. The varying degree of ideological consistency in citizens’ responses then makes it possible to assess the architecture of a country's political debates and make cross-national comparisons.
This approach to the workings of left-right ideology has two advantages. First, it moves the discussion of ideology beyond Western countries, and makes it possible to draw an extensive map of national ideological patterns. Second, and more importantly, because we use aggregate survey evidence, we can assess national-level causal mechanisms, and weigh, in particular, the respective influence of economic, social, and political factors on the constitution of the left-right cleavage.
Our results indicate that the left-right opposition is unevenly effective in structuring national politics. Individual answers to questions about equality, personal responsibility, homosexuality, the army, churches, or major companies correlate with left-right self-positioning in more than half of the countries considered. But answers to questions about abortion, government ownership of industry, competition, trade unions, or environmental groups correlate with ideological self-positioning in only a third of the cases. In line with the expectations of Inglehart and Welzel, we also find that economic development, secularisation, and the age of democracy are the best predictors of a structured left-right debate.
Theorising left and right
The construction of ideological identities is both a top-down and a bottom-up process, whereby people adopt political orientations defined by elites and institutions in line with their own personal predispositions. Psychologists have naturally paid more attention to the bottom-up, personal determinants of ideology, while political scientists have been more interested in the top-down, collective process. As a top-down process, the building of the left-right divide hinges on a country’s elites’ and institutions’ capacity to propose to voters what Paul Sniderman and John Bullock call a “menu of choices.” For these authors, political institutions—most notably parties—give consistency to the views of ordinary citizens, by providing coherent menus from which they can choose. As left-right self-positioning is strongly correlated with partisanship, we can hypothesise that a long-established, institutionalised party system contributes to structure ideological debates along left-right lines, compared to the more volatile politics of countries with fragile democracies.
To evaluate if the “menu of choices” proposed by a country’s elites and parties and adopted by voters is organised along left and right lanes, we test whether divisions in a country’s public opinion appear consistent with individual left-right self-positioning. People on the left are likely to be more favourable to equality, state intervention, public ownership, and trade unions, and people on the right better disposed toward markets, individual incentives, competition, and major companies. The left should also be more open toward homosexuality and abortion and more supportive of environmental organisations, and the right more at ease with churches and the armed forces. In countries where the menu of choices is strongly structured by the left-right opposition, there should be significant relationships between individual left-right self-positioning and the expected attitudes on these questions; in countries with a less powerful left-right schema, these relationships should be weaker.
Moreover, one should expect a connection between the structure of left-right discourse and the human development sequence identified by Inglehart and Welzel. Economic development, secularisation, and democratisation broaden the possibility, the willingness, and the rights of people to consider social alternatives. Economic development fosters the material capacity of a people to make choices, secularisation expands the moral frontiers of available choices, and democratic consolidation allows political parties and groups to define over time a menu of choices ordered around the usual left-right patterns. Left-right patterns should thus be associated with these three dimensions of human development.
83 societies have a complete set of WVS/EVS answers for the questions we select. The core question of interest concerns left-right self-positioning, and it is addressed by asking respondents to locate themselves on a 1 to 10 scale going from left to right. Although the rate of response varies significantly across countries, overall, about three-quarter of respondents proved able to locate themselves on a left-right scale, allowing for valid inferences about ideology.
To verify whether this left-right positioning corresponds to consistent ideological stances, we correlate left-right positioning to responses on substantive political issues. Some of our eleven ideological questions refer to the core socio-economic components of the left-right cleavage (attitudes about equality, private or public ownership, the role of government, or competition), others concern cultural or social values (attitudes about homosexuality and abortion), and others tap respondents’ views about various organisations (churches, the armed forces, labor unions, major companies, and environmental organisations). We expect people on the left to be more favourable to equal incomes, public ownership of business or industry, and the government’s responsibility “to ensure that everyone is provided for,” and less likely to consider that “competition is good.” Respondents on the left should also be more open toward homosexuality and abortion, and more confident in labour unions and environmental organisations, but less so in the churches, the armed forces, and major companies.
Using national responses to our eleven questions on substantive issues, we build a composite dependent variable, called left-right ideological reach. This variable measures the extent to which, in a given country, left-right self-positioning predicts the expected ideological stances on substantive political issues. If, in country A, the relationship between self-positioning and, say, attitudes about equality is significant (p < 0.05) and in the expected direction, we give a score of 1, and if not of 0. Adding results for eleven questions, a country’s score for left-right ideological reach can then range from 0, when self-positioning never correlates in the expected direction with a substantive left-right political division, to 11, when the expected relationships are present for all questions.
To account for national differences in ideological reach, we use indicators for economic development, secularisation, and democratic experience, as well as a number of control variables, for cultural differences in particular.
Left-right ideological reach varies significantly across countries, from 0 for Libya and Moldova to 11 for a number of Western countries, including France and the United States. As Table 1 shows, there are 27 countries with scores of 0 to 3, where left-right self-positioning hardly predicts respondents’ positions on traditional issues dividing the left and the right; 31 where left-right ideological reach is moderate, with scores of 4 to 7; and 25 where a person’s ideological self-positioning predicts her position on most issues, most of the time, with scores of 8 to 11.
This is a new, multidimensional, and country-scale representation of left and right public attitudes across the world, and the idea of a relationship between left-right self-positioning and substantive political orientations appears validated, at least for nearly two thirds of our sample.
A cursory look at the data suggests, in line with the literature and with our theory, that left-right ideological reach is influenced by economic and democratic development. Countries with high scores in Table 1 are predominantly rich, established democracies; countries at the low end of the scale tend to be poorer, with authoritarian regimes or newer democracies. Indeed, economic development, measured by GDP per capita, is strongly correlated with ideological reach, and so are our indicators of secularisation and democracy. In multiple regressions, the three explanatory variables considered are significant, with democracy coming first. Control variables for cultural differences (religiosity and civilisations) are non-significant.
These results are consistent with our interpretation of the left-right divide as a political construct that has global resonance but is clearly more structured in countries that have long experienced economic development, secularisation, and democratic politics. They also dispose of the seemingly common sense but misleading argument that would jump from a look at the cases in Table 1 to the conclusion that left and right are a Western specificity. Looking closely at the same table, one can see countries like Uruguay, Argentina, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and Pakistan with scores of 7 or more, and countries like Hungary, Taiwan, and Brazil with low scores. Fostered by economic development and to some extent by secularisation, the left-right cleavage remains, first and foremost, a product of the enduring democratic conflict for control of the government. Not surprisingly, a host of comparative politics writings lend support to this conclusion, and suggests that the left-right divide is more structuring in countries with a strongly institutionalised party system.
The evidence from cross-national surveys is rather clear: around the world, most people are able and willing to locate themselves on a left-right scale and when they do, they tend to understand what this self-positioning implies. Their understanding, however, tends to be more comprehensive in countries that are more advanced economically, more secular, and more solidly democratic. As political parties compete for the popular vote, they construct an ideological pattern that makes sense for both elites and voters, and that gives structure to politics. When they fail to do so, or when democracy is non-existent, political discourse remains more haphazard, driven by context and personalities.
To go beyond these conclusions, we would need to probe further the political mechanisms that contribute to the development of ideology. Looking systematically at the party system institutionalisation hypothesis, in particular, would seem promising. For now, however, we can be satisfied that the language of the left and the right seems to function as an imperfect but critical unifying element in global politics.
 Russell J. Dalton, ‘Social Modernization and the End of Ideology Debate: Patterns of Ideological Polarization’, Japanese Journal of Political Science, 7:1 (2006), pp. 1-22; John T. Jost, ‘The End of the End of Ideology’, American Psychologist, 61:7 (2006), pp. 651-670; Peter Mair, ‘Left-Right Orientations’, in Russell J. Dalton and Hans-Dieter Klingemann (Eds), The Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 206-222; Alain Noël and Jean-Philippe Thérien, Left and Right in Global Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); André Freire and Kats Kivistik, ‘Western and Non-Western Meanings of the Left-Right Divide across Four Continents’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 18:2 (2013), pp. 171-199.
by Sean Seeger
What is the relationship of queer theory to utopianism?
Given their mutual interest in challenging dominant norms, values, and institutions, it may seem obvious that queer theory would share affinities with utopian thought. Determining what precisely these affinities consist in is, however, a less straightforward matter. In order to understand them, we will need to consider the twin careers of queer theory and utopianism over the last few decades.
It is a striking fact that the flourishing of the first wave of queer theory in the 1980s and 90s coincided with the demise of utopianism within wider culture. Theorists from David Harvey to Fredric Jameson have explained this drying up of utopian energy in terms of the turn toward post-Fordism followed by the rise of neoliberalism. Others, such as Ruth Levitas and Slavoj Žižek, have emphasised the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as key factors in the widely proclaimed ‘death’ of utopia. Meanwhile, in their analyses of the cultural politics of the period, Franco Berardi and Mark Fisher each write of the widespread sense of ‘the cancellation of the future’ as it became increasingly hard to envisage plausible alternatives to capitalism during these decades.
As James Ingram notes, this anti-utopian sense of stagnation meant that critics of the status quo found it necessary to seize on ‘ever thinner, weaker, and vaguer’ utopian moments as the possibility of tangible, real-world change receded from view. Utopianism thus tended to become highly abstract and emptied of content: rather than anticipating a better society or the liberation of specific human energies, the focus of much utopian discourse increasingly became the bare possibility of change itself – the intimation that things might, somehow, someday be otherwise.
A case in point is that of Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future, where it is suggested that, in light of the failed utopian projects of the twentieth century, ‘the slogan of anti-anti-Utopianism might well offer the best working strategy’ for those on the left today. On this view, rearguard action against the dystopian tendencies of late capitalism, combined with fleeting glimpses of utopian hope found scattered amidst works of literature and popular culture, may be as close to utopia as we are able to come.
This anti-utopian turn was arguably foreshadowed in certain respects by the work of Michel Foucault, who, in response to an interviewer’s question about why he had not sketched a utopia, notoriously replied that ‘to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system.’
In their book, The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution, Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora show that this outlook was the result of a growing sense of exhaustion with system building, utopian dreaming, and grand visions of the future in the latter half of the twentieth century. In place of revolution, they argue, Foucault proposed a turn toward the self and a focus on micro-political as opposed to systemic change. Foucault’s late masterwork, The History of Sexuality, published in several volumes between 1976 and 1984, is representative of this inward turn. It was also to be one of the main sources of inspiration for what was to become known as queer theory.
In this context, it is worth noting that a related criticism to that levelled by Ingram at the diminished utopianism of the 80s and 90s has also been made of first-wave queer theory. A good example of this is Rosemary Hennessy’s book Profit and Pleasure, in which Hennessy criticises what she sees as the tendency of theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick to separate gender and sexuality from capitalism and class. Such an approach is problematic, firstly, because it dehistoricises gender and sexuality by untethering them from the development of capitalism, and, secondly, because it dematerialises them by emphasising their cultural construction while neglecting socioeconomic factors such as the changing nature of wage labour or the origins of the modern family.
Hennessy is one of a number of critics who see queer theory’s way of engaging gender and sexuality as restrictive and as leading to difficulties in situating queer identity and politics in relation to broader social developments. Although they do not generally frame these limitations in terms of a failure of the utopian imagination, a parallel may be drawn between these writers’ critique of queer theory, on the one hand, and critiques of the turn toward micro-politics during the 80s and 90s by commentators like Dean and Zamora, on the other.
Just as utopianism dwindled to little more than a wisp of possibility during the neoliberal era, so first-wave queer theory represents for some of its critics a retreat from large-scale social critique in favour of a preoccupation with individual self-fashioning, leaving it susceptible to commodification and the dilution of its radical potential.
These are serious charges. There are nevertheless a number of replies that queer theorists might make in response to them.
A first would start by noting that, as queer theorists themselves, critics like Hennessy are contributors to the enterprise they find fault with. Insofar as their own class-based analysis of gender and sexuality is successful (as it arguably is), they thereby demonstrate that queer theory is able to encompass economic considerations. Although this does not constitute a defence of earlier theorists, it does help to demonstrate the flexibility of queer theory and the possibility of broadening its scope beyond the categories of gender and sexuality. Queer of color critique, which addresses the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race, has likewise contested some of queer theory’s guiding assumptions and highlighted further blindspots from a position within queer theory itself.
A second reply would be to point out that some queer theorists have been concerned with capitalism and class since the inception of the field in the early 1980s. To take one prominent example, John D’Emilio was producing groundbreaking analysis of socioeconomic factors in the formation of queer subjectivity in articles such as ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’ as early as 1983. In the following decade, Lisa Duggan analysed the depoliticisation of gay identity in articles like ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism.’
The main contention of D’Emilio’s ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’ is that ‘only when individuals began to make their living through wage labor, instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit, was it possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity – an identity based on the ability to remain outside the heterosexual family and to construct a personal life based on attraction to one’s own sex.’ This, in turn, ‘made possible the formation of urban communities of lesbians and gay men and, more recently, of a politics based on a sexual identity.’
D’Emilio’s account of the origin of gay identity is not deterministic: he does not claim that an alteration in economic life caused gay identity to come into existence. Rather, his argument is that until specific historical conditions arose there was no ‘social space’ for such an identity to occupy. D’Emilio shows that while same-sex desire is present in the historical record prior to the nineteenth century, homosexuality as an identity – as a way of being and of relating to others – is not. As even this brief sketch hopefully illustrates, D’Emilio’s work provides a prima facie reason to think that queer theory need not neglect economic considerations.
A third reply to critics of queer theory’s limited political scope would be to reconsider some of its foundational texts. Reflecting on her classic study Gender Trouble a decade on from its original publication, Butler commented that ‘the aim of the text was to open up the field of possibility for gender without dictating which kinds of possibilities ought to be realized.’ The possibilities in question have to do with ways of performing gender, and the scope for subversion of established gender roles and styles. It is true, as Hennessy argues, that both Gender Trouble and its sequel, Bodies that Matter, focus almost exclusively on gender and sexuality and that neither offers anything like a systematic analysis of their relationship to capitalism or class. Whether this constitutes as decisive a shortcoming as Hennessy believes is less clear, however.
‘One might wonder,’ Butler writes, ‘what use “opening up possibilities” finally is, but no one who has understood what it is to live in the social world as what is “impossible,” illegible, unrealizable, unreal, and illegitimate is likely to pose that question.’ This is a suggestive observation that may point to a way of reappraising not only Gender Trouble but Butler’s work more generally. While taking the invalidation of certain ways of performing gender as its ostensible focus, the remark registers a concern with illegibility and illegitimacy that has continued to inform Butler’s work.
In her books Precarious Life and Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Butler incorporates economic marginalisation into her analysis and provides an insightful account of the condition of precarity, which she defines as differential exposure to economic insecurity, violence, and forced migration. In light of these and other works, it has become possible to identify a persisting preoccupation on Butler’s part with the ways in which social value and legitimacy are assigned to or withheld from different groups, whether on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, class, immigration status, or some combination of these.
The examples of D’Emilio and Butler serve to illustrate the social and political reach of queer theory. Recent years, however, have seen the rise of a more overtly utopian style of queer theory. Work in this vein explicitly repudiates the anti-utopianism of the neoliberal era and is influenced as much by traditions of radical queer activism and historical events such as the Compton’s Cafeteria riot and Stonewall as by Foucault’s History of Sexuality.
Published in 2009, José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, an important example of queer of color critique, articulates a hopeful, future-oriented alternative to what Muñoz sees as the resignation and political timidity of queer culture since the turn of the millennium.
Distinguishing between LGBT pragmatism and queer utopianism, Muñoz argues that in focusing on objectives like gay marriage or securing the right of trans people to serve in the military, the queer community has lost sight of the utopian aspirations that inspired activists of the 1960s and 70s. For Muñoz, the aim of queer politics ought to be nothing less than the achievement of a world no longer structured by heteronormativity or white supremacy, however remote such a goal may appear from our present dystopian vantage. Even if Cruising Utopia does not offer the kind of concrete detail required to realise such a project, it is clearly a long way from the micro-political tinkering associated with queer theory by some of its critics.
A very different but no less utopian form of queer theory is found in The Xenofeminist Manifesto, originally published online in 2015 and authored by a collective of six authors working under the name Laboria Cuboniks. Characterised by Emily Jones as ‘a feminist ethics for the technomaterial world’, xenofeminism is a queer technofeminism committed to trans liberation and gender abolition, by which is meant the construction of ‘a society where traits currently assembled under the rubric of gender, no longer furnish a grid for the asymmetric operation of power.’
The ethos of the manifesto is well captured by its subtitle: ‘a politics for alienation’. Those seeking radical change must embrace ‘alienation’ through the recognition that nothing is natural. While acknowledging the cultural construction of gender, the manifesto insists that materiality and biology must likewise not be taken as givens: they can be intervened in through surgery, hormone therapies, and alterations to the built environment. As experiments in free and open-source medicine on the part of feminists, gender hacktivists, and trans DIY-HRT forums demonstrate, technologies so far captured by capital may yet be repurposed as part of an anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal project in which ‘women, queers, and the gender non-conforming play an unparalleled role.’
Written in a self-consciously hyperbolic style and blending promethean rhetoric with quasi-science fictional projections of post-capitalist emancipation, The Xenofeminist Manifesto is as exhilarating as it is wildly ambitious.
What, then, is the relationship of queer theory to utopianism? Based on our brief consideration of some of queer theory’s more utopian elements, it is reasonable to draw two provisional conclusions: that queer theory may have more in common with utopian thought than is often assumed, and that there are signs of a more explicit utopian turn taking place within queer theory today. It remains to be seen how far the latter will inform future queer politics.
My thanks to Daniel Davison-Vecchione for his helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.
 See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1991).
 See Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia, 2nd edn. (Oxfordshire: Peter Lang, 2011), pp. ix–xv; and Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008).
 See Franco Berardi, After the Future, eds. Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thoburn (Edinburgh and Oakland, Baltimore: AK Press, 2011); and Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (London: Zero, 2009).
 James D. Ingram, Introduction, Political Uses of Utopia: New Marxist, Anarchist, and Radical Democratic Perspectives, eds. S. D. Chrostowska and James D. Ingram (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), p. xvi.
 Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2007), xvi.
 Michel Foucault, ‘Revolutionary Action: Until Now,’ in Language, Counter-Memory and Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 230.
 Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora, The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution (London: Verso, 2021).
 Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism, 2nd edn. (New York: Routledge, 2017).
 Related issues have been raised about queer theory by James Penney in After Queer Theory: The Limits of Sexual Politics (London: Pluto, 2014), which makes the case for the need for a critical return to Marxism on the part of queer theorists.
 John D’Emilio, ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’, in The Gay and Lesbian Studies Reader, eds. Michele Aina, Barale, David M. Halperin, and Henry Abelove (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 467–476.
 Lisa Duggan, ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism,’ in Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, eds. Dana D. Nelson and Russ Castronovo (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 175–194.
 D’Emilio, p. 470.
 Judith Butler, Preface, Gender Trouble, 2nd edn. (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. vii–viii.
 Butler, p. viii.
 Judith Butler, Precarious Life (London: Verso, 2004) and Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
 Emily Jones, ‘Feminist Technologies and Post-Capitalism: Defining and Reflecting Upon Xenofeminism,’ Feminist Review, Vol. 123, Issue. 1 (2019), p. 127.
 Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto (London: Verso, 2018), p. 55.
 Cuboniks, p. 17.
Fascism as a recurring possibility: Zeev Sternhell, the anti-Enlightenment, and the politics of an intellectual history of modernity
by Tommaso Giordani
Examining the development of Zeev Sternhell’s work yields a precise impression: that of a movement from the particular to the general, from an intellectual history rooted in precise contexts to increasingly broad studies dealing with larger and less narrowly contextualised traditions of thought.
His first monograph, published in 1972, was titled Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français and examined the role of Barrès in transforming a French nationalism which was originally “Jacobin, open, grounded in the doctrine of natural rights” into an “organic nationalism, postulating a physiological determinism”. In the decade between 1978 and 1989, Sternhell publishes the three works which created his reputation as one of the world’s most important historians of fascism: Ni droite ni gauche, La droite révolutionnaire, and Naissance de l’idéologie fasciste. Though still maintaining a focus on France, these studies—especially the last one—cannot be reduced to contributions to French history. They are instead an attempt to outline a theory of fascism centred on the importance of the ideological element, something which naturally brought the Israeli historian and his collaborators beyond the borders of the hexagon.
Following this interpretative line, we can identify a third phase of Sternhell’s work starting from the 1996 collective volume The intellectual revolt against liberal democracy. Having first moved beyond the examination of French nationalism towards a more general theory of fascism, in this third phase Sternhell leaves the question of fascist ideology behind, embedding it in a larger narrative embracing the last three centuries of European intellectual history and revolving around the dichotomy between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment ideas. The high point is represented by his last and most ambitious study, Les Anti-Lumières, in which the Israeli historian traces the development of what he calls a “different modernity”, consisting in a “comprehensive revolt against the Enlightenment’s fundamental views”.
There is obviously a great deal of truth in this way of reading the Israeli historian’s trajectory, especially given the substantial growth of the materials treated and the enlargement of both chronology and geography. And yet, there is an important way in which this reading is wrong, namely if it is taken to claim that the large, meta-historical categories of “Enlightenment” and “Anti-Enlightenment” are inductive generalisations, synthesising decades of work in intellectual history and emerging from Sternhell’s previous studies. A summary look at Sternhell first book reveals, instead, that these categories have informed his work since the beginning.
Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français is, as we have pointed out, not a simple intellectual biography, but a work which sees the significance of Barrès through the wider lens of a study of the transformation of French nationalism. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that even the framework of French nationalism is a very reductive description of Sternhell’s perspective, for it is a nationalism which is embedded in a wider current of ideas, both spatially and temporally. Spatially, Barrès participates in a tradition of thought which is continental. He is cast by Sternhell much more as a European than as a Frenchman. Barrès is “the child of his century: Baudelaire and Wagner fascinate him, he calls himself—and is—a disciple of Taine and Renan; he has read Nietzsche, Gobineau, and Dostoevsky. For his first trilogy, he claims to have been inspired by Schopenhauer, by Fichte, and by Hartmann”. Temporally, this continental tradition to which Barrès belongs is cast as deploying itself over a broad chronology, as can be evinced by Sternhell’s insistence on its similarities with “another movement of revolt against the status quo: pre-1830, post-revolutionary romanticism”. Without denying the decisive role of European fin de siècle culture, Sternhell finds common traits between this “neo-romanticism” and the older movement. In both cases, we have a “resurgence of irrational values”, the “cult of sentiment and instinct” and, finally, “the substitution of the ‘organic’ explanation of the world to the ‘mechanical’ one”. Even if the connections are merely sketched, it is clear that the temporality in which Sternhell places his object is that of modernity. Barrès, in other words, is significant not just as a French nationalist, but as a member of a tradition marked by the “systematic rejection of the values inherited from the eighteenth century and from the French Revolution”.
Granted, the term “Anti-Enlightenment” does not appear in this work, and comparison of this initial sketch of the tradition with later versions yields some differences, such as a greater role he later ascribes to German and Italian historicism, as well as a tendency to read this current of ideas in an increasingly static and monolithic way. And yet, beyond these small differences, substantial similarities emerge: the broad chronology, the continental extension, and the dichotomous division of the last two centuries of European intellectual history into the two opposing camps of the Enlightenment and its enemies.
This dichotomy informs virtually the entirety of Sternhell’s works in the history of political ideas. We see it at work in his trilogy on fascist ideology, and it is subtly yet unmistakeably active in his analysis of Zionism, in which Jewish nationalism is characterised, inter alia, as a “Herderian” response to the “challenge of emancipation”. Underlying historical enquiry on particular political ideologies, in other words, is a theory of European modernity revolving around the opposition between what Sternhell came to label the universalistic “Franco-Kantian Enlightenment” and its particularistic opponents.
Methodologically, the advantages of this approach are many: it allows the writing of a profoundly diachronic history of ideas, capable of embracing a multitude of contexts and spaces, and in theory able to trace the evolution of traditions of thought without losing sight of the underlying continuities. At the same time, various critics have underlined its limits. Sternhell has been accused of not having learnt the lessons of postmodernism, and of reconstructing the intellectual history of European modernity in the form of a “Manichean struggle” between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment. General accusations of Manicheanism, approximation, and teleology are, in fact, amongst the most common directed against Sternhell. Shlomo Sand gives a more precise way to consider the limits of this approach, identifying the problem in Sternhell’s use of “narrow, static, unhistorical definitions”, that is, of meta-historical categories.
Here we come to the crux of the question: Sternhell’s way of proceeding is indeed marked by the use of categories of analysis which transcend the contexts in which historical actors developed their thought. Is this, however, enough to methodologically invalidate his analysis? The use of categories transcending narrow historical contextualisation is a necessity for any work with diachronic ambitions. Tracing the development of any tradition of thought over time, in other words, implies the use of descriptions and definitions which would have appeared bizarre to the thinkers of the time. The employment of a meta-language, and the anachronism, teleology, and de-contextualisation that come with it, are, to a point, a necessity of any genealogy, of any historical enquiry which aims to do more than simply take a synchronic snapshot of the past. Therefore, it seems incorrect to identify the problem in the mere use of categories such as Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment.
The problem lies not in the mere presence of these meta-historical tools of analysis, but, rather, in the way in which Sternhell has come to employ them over time. As we have seen, in Maurice Barrès the anti-Enlightenment tradition was sketched with a certain nuance, insisting on its internal transformations over time, and paying attention to the crucial distinction between the work of an individual and its reception. Over time, however, much of this nuance disappears, and passages from his later works do seem, at times, to interpret two centuries of European intellectual history through the prism of what is, after all, a not too dynamic dichotomy between French universalistic culture and German romantic particularism.
Take Sternhell’s analysis of Georges Sorel’s revision of Marxism at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. For the Israeli historian, it constitutes a crucial step towards the creation of fascist ideology. According to him, the key element of Sorelian revisionism is the destruction of the connection between the industrial working class and the revolution, something capable of altering “Marxism to such an extent that it immediately transformed it into a neutral weapon of war that could be used against the bourgeois order not only by the proletariat but by society as a whole”. Sorelian revisionism thus consists in the removal of Marxian categories of analysis based on social antagonisms grounded in the positioning in the productive structure of society, which are then replaced by antagonisms grounded in an opposition to the decadence of bourgeois civilisation. As Sternhell puts it, “history, for Sorel, was finally not so much a chronicle of class warfare as an endless struggle against decadence”. It follows that if the proletariat is unable to fulfil its struggle against bourgeois decadence, there is no reason why another historical agent, such as the national community, should not engage in the same struggle. The result is fascism.
The problem with this reading is that, despite its apparent plausibility, it is historically inaccurate. Real Sorelian revisionism consists in a number of texts published in the 1890s in which the main thrust is epistemological and social scientific more than political. Its consequences are opposite to those drawn by Sternhell. Animated by the desire “show to sceptics that… socialism is worthy of belonging to the modern scientific movement”, Sorelian revisionism revolved around three main points: (1) the refusal of historical determinism; (2) the rejection of economic determinism; and consequently, (3) a vision of Marxism not as a predictive social science but as the intellectual articulation of the historical experience of the workers’ movement. Even if this revisionism is much more concerned with Marxism as a social science than with Marxism as a political project, its political uptake is not the breaking of the connection between proletariat and revolution, but its strengthening. A Marxism which renounces its predictive capacity and the very idea of a necessary historical development cannot but evolve into what Sorel later called a “theory of the proletariat”. The removal of historical necessity means that the transition to socialism can only be yielded by the agency of the revolutionary subject—the proletariat. It should thus not be surprising that, as early as 1898, Sorel insists on working class autonomy, arguing that “the entire future of socialism resides in the autonomous development workers’ unions”.
The revision of Marxism does not exhaust Sorel’s production and there are parts of his trajectory, and of those of some of his disciples, which are more in line with Sternhell’s analysis. And yet, the fact remains that this analysis completely overlooks contexts which are crucial to Sorelian revisionism, resulting in an historically inaccurate picture. The point is not merely to underline the many substantial imprecisions which characterise Sternhell’s reading of Sorelian revisionism, but to emphasise how these misreadings derive directly from the indiscriminate use of the abovementioned meta-historical categories. “Marxism” writes Sternhell “was a system of ideas still deeply rooted in the philosophy of the eighteenth century. Sorelian revisionism replaced the rationalist, Hegelian foundations of Marxism with Le Bon’s new vision of human nature, with the anti-Cartesianism of Bergson, with the Nietzschean cult of revolt, and with Pareto’s most recent discoveries in political sociology”. But is it plausible to speak of a rejection of Hegel for someone so profoundly influenced by Antonio Labriola, who represented one of Europe’s main Hegelian traditions? Is it correct to speak of the “Nietzschean cult of revolt” for a figure who wrote over 600 texts and yet discusses Nietzsche virtually only in a handful of pages in the Reflections on violence? Is it historically acceptable to suggest proximity to Paretian elitism for a political thinker who wrote vitriolic pages against the leadership of French socialism by bourgeois intellectuals?
These misreadings derive from the fact that Sternhell’s dualistic approach, if taken rigidly, cannot make space for Sorelian revisionism, for that would imply accepting the possibility of a Marxism capable of incorporating elements of romanticism without ipso facto becoming a sworn enemy of the Enlightenment. But Marxism, for Sternhell, is “rooted in the philosophy of the eighteenth century”, and any deviation from this particular philosophical outlook is to be classified as anti-Enlightenment thought. Strictly speaking, for Sternhell, Sorelian revisionism is a betrayal. But here are the limits of Sternhell’s rigid application of his categories, limits which emerge not only in relation to Sorel, but also to Marxism more in general. Marxism is, from its beginnings, a politico-philosophical tradition which is transversal to the dichotomy between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment. The mere suggestion of reading a tradition derived from Hegel and Marx as in opposition to German romanticism shows the dangers of overreliance on these categories. The appropriate historical context for understanding Sorelian revisionism is the battle, internal to Marxism, between positivistic and humanistic interpretations of Marx’s work. Against Sorel’s insistence on the impossibility of historical laws there is Lafargue who advocates their existence; against Antonio Labriola who struggles to free historical materialism from positivism there is Enrico Ferri who goes in the opposite direction. To miss this transversality of the Marxist tradition cannot but yield serious mistakes. How would Sternhell judge Gramsci’s claim that Marxism is “the continuation of German and Italian idealism, which in Marx had been contaminated by naturalistic and positivistic incrustations”? Would he see a voluntaristic cult of revolt in the affirmation that “the main determinant of history is not lifeless economics, but man”?
Why, in the face of much criticism, did Sternhell never even go close to admitting the risks of a certain way of employing an approach based on meta-historical categories? Why did he not only stick with it, but began using it in an increasingly rigid and passionate manner? To answer these questions, a preliminary point must be clarified. If the Enlighenment/anti-Enlightenment dualism is the conceptual centre of Sternhell’s work, its existential core is the question of fascism. Orphaned and turned refugee by anti-Semitic violence in his native Poland during World War II, Sternhell has always been very clear on the fact that for him the study of fascism went far beyond purely academic interest. Anyone who has read the pages he has written will be aware of the urgency of his prose, of the passionate tone of warning which permeates most of them, especially those on fascism. “Thinking about fascism” he wrote in 2008 “is not a reflection on a regime or a movement, but a reflection on the risks that might be involved for a whole civilisation when it rejects the notion of universal values, when it substitutes historical relativism for universalism, and substitutes various communitarian values for the autonomy of the individual”. Aside from clarifying the relationship between fascism and anti-Enlightenment in Sternhell’s thought—with the former political option becoming possible only in an environment in which the latter’s ideas are present—this quotation sheds much light on Sternhell’s insistence on the Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment duality.
To frame fascism as a political possibility enabled by the existence of certain anti-Enlightenment ideas means adopting a view of fascism as a recurring possibility of modernity. Fascism is thus not an abstract and a-historical ideal type, but neither is it an historical particularity inextricably linked to the specific, and unrepeatable, conditions of interwar Europe. To embed fascism in a theory of modernity, in other words, allows one to see it as a living political culture, perhaps at times dormant, but constantly capable of making the leap from cultural contestation to political project, at least as long as the particularistic ideas of the “alternative modernity” of the anti-Enlightenment continue to inform European intellectual life. Sternhell’s dismissal of the decisive role of World War I and his insistence that the fascist synthesis was already achieved in the belle époque substantiate this reading.
The Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment framing, in short, stems from the fiercely held conviction that fascism is not a thing of the past, but of the present. It is a framing, thus, that at once emerges from the need for public engagement and simultaneously enables a mode of public intervention which could not as easily be sustained through a narrower contextualism or a taxonomical approach. Recent years have brought, together with the electoral victories of right-wing forces in Europe and the United States, a flurry of analyses on the return of fascism. Whether through taxonomies, historical parallels between the present and the interwar period, or analyses of fascist mentality, this literature has been animated by the same conviction that has long animated Zeev Sternhell’s work: that fascism is not a thing of the past. Eschewing these strategies, however, Sternhell has long pioneered a different way of thinking about fascism: not an historical particularity, not a mentality, not a list of criteria that regimes must possess, but instead a constant potentiality of European modernity, embedded in two centuries of anti-Enlightenment thought.
By way of conclusion, a tentative answer to the obvious question: from where does Sternhell’s conviction that fascism is always possible emerge? It is true that the defeat of 1945 has not been the historical caesura one unreflectively imagines, and that fascism has continued to exist, in less ideologically assertive forms, in many countries of southern Europe. At the same time, before the recent, possibly short-lived, resurgence of the fascist spectre, academic analyses of fascism were rarely animated by this urgent conviction of its relevance. The answer to this conundrum is to be found in Sternhell’s political engagement in his country, Israel. In March 1978, together with other reservists of the Israeli army, Sternhell signed an open letter to then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, warning that a policy “which prefers settlements beyond the Green Line to terminating the historic conflict” was a dangerous one, which could “harm the Jewish-democratic character of the state”. The letter established the organisation Peace Now, in which Sternhell continued to be active for the rest of his life.
Over the years, the evolution of the political situation made the positions Sternhell supported increasingly minoritarian. But the Israeli historian did not back down. On the contrary, he continued to put forward his positions. This earned him a pipe bomb attack at his home in Jerusalem in 2008, from which he emerged substantially unscathed. Flyers offering over 1 million shekels to whoever killed a member of Peace Now found near his home left little doubt as to the motivations behind it. After Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, Sternhell became increasingly vocal, denouncing what he saw as a dangerous evolution of Israeli society. In his many public interventions, he uses the language with which we have been dealing here, that of the anti-Enlightenment. He saw the rise of the Israeli right as that of a “power-driven national movement, negating human rights, and rejecting universal rights, liberalism and democracy”. In a 2014 interview in which he denounced signs of fascism in Israeli society, he framed that political option in familiar terms: as a “war against enlightenment and against universal values”. In 2013, he was called as an expert witness in a defamation case put forward by the nationalist association Im Tirzu against some activists who had labelled it as fascist. In an exchange with Im Tirzu’s lawyer, we see, again, the same language: “…they are not conservatives, but revolutionary conservatives. What they seek is a cultural revolution. ‘Neo-Zionism’ as they define it is an anti-utilitarian, anti-western, anti-rational cultural revolution.”
Examples of this kind could be multiplied, but the point should by now be clear. Certain methodological options may seem puzzling when judged uniquely by the standards of academic practice, but the rationale for their employment may become more understandable when they are seen as connected to a concrete historical situation. The Enlightenment/anti-Enlightenment dichotomy, with all the limits that Sternhell’s passionate use involved, is one such case: it must, at least partially, be seen as emerging from the imperative of engagement. Still, Sternhell’s historical works are not political pamphlets. Even if sometimes they possess the urgent tone of that genre of writing, they remain contributions to the study of European intellectual history, and should be judged also according to those standards. And yet, the separation of these two layers, engagement and scholarship, is not easy and, to a point, not desirable. To effect this separation would be to misunderstand the work of a scholar for whom the two were intertwined. As he argued in the most articulate defence of his method, “through contextualism, particularism, and linguistic relativism, in concentrating on what is specific and unique and denying the universal, one necessarily finds oneself on the side of anti-humanism and historical relativism”.
The author would like to thank Or Rosenboim for discussions on the Israeli context and for help with translations from Hebrew. All other translations from French and Italian sources are the author's. Research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under Grant Agreement No. 757873 (project BETWEEN THE TIMES).
 Zeev Sternhell, Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français , 3rd ed. (Paris: Fayard, 2016), 251.
 Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, trans. David Maisel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 1.
Sternhell, Maurice Barrès, 56.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 41.
 Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel. Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State, trans. David Maisel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 12.
 David D. Roberts, ‘How not to think about Fascism and ideology, intellectual antecedents and historical meaning’, Journal of Contemporary History 35, no. 2 (2000): 189.
 Shlomo Sand, ‘L’idéologie Fasciste en France’, L’Esprit, September 1983, 159.
 Zeev Sternhell, Maia Asheri, and Mario Sznajder, The Birth of Fascist Ideology. From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution., trans. David Maisel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 37.
 Ibid., 38
 Sorel to Croce, 20/12/1895, in Georges Sorel, ‘Lettere di Georges Sorel a Benedetto Croce’, La Critica 25 (1927): 38.
 Georges Sorel, ‘L’avenir socialiste des syndicats’, L’humanité Nouvelle 2 (1898): 445.
 Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, 24.
 Antonio Gramsci, ‘La rivoluzione contro il Capitale’, Avanti! 24 November 1917.
 Zeev Sternhell, ‘How to Think about Fascism and Its Ideology’, Constellations 15, no. 3 (2008): 280.
 Open letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, March 1978, https://peacenow.org/entry.php?id=2230#.YK5yjKGEY2w
 Zeev Sternhell “Does Israel still need democracy”, Haaretz, 17 November 2011
 Gidi Weitz, ‘Signs of fascism in Israel reached new peak during Gaza op, says renowned scholar’, Haaretz, 13 August 2014.
 Oren Persico, “Analyzing with an ax”, Ha-ain ha-shvi’it, 12 May 2013, https://www.the7eye.org.il/62652
 Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, 35.
by Udit Bhatia and Bruno Leipold
Udit Bhatia: It might be useful for our readers if you could start off by saying what the idea of transformative constitution is and what work it does in your reading of the Indian constitution.
Gautam Bhatia: The term transformative constitutionalism or transformative constitution originated in post-apartheid South Africa and it had a, it is a contested term. My understanding of it is that there are basically two things about it. First, that it's distinctively post-liberal in its approach to constitutionalism. There was a certain classic understanding of constitutions as being about limiting state power. That is an understanding that comes from the American Constitution that has had a disproportionate influence on constitutionalism across time and across the world. Transformative constitutionalism is post-liberal in the sense that it understands the role of a Constitution to be more than containing the state and it actually involves directing the state towards achieving certain social goals. Another really fundamental tenet of liberal ideology is the idea of neutrality. For example, John Rawls’s ‘right over the good’, where we can disagree over goals but there are certain rights- based principles that are non-negotiable. But transformative constitutionalism specifically says that there’s a certain vision of society we're trying to get towards. In that sense, it’s also post-liberal that you could call it perfectionist again to use the term from analytical philosophy. But it has a certain blueprint of the society that it envisages as being the good society and it sees constitutions and constitutionalism as vehicles for getting there. And then it also calls for changing legal culture, so it's not just what a constitution can do. To make the constitution do that you have to then alter the way people argue in court, the things that courts can do and just the structure of legal argument and legal culture.
So the original article by Karl Klare, a labour lawyer talked about both these things, and often a bit about legal culture is forgotten and in my book, the term transformative constitutionalism broadly does something similar in the sense that it specifically talks about the Indian Constitution as being post-liberal in the sense that it was understood to be an intervention, both with respect to containing state power and providing political and civil rights and transforming subjects into citizens. But also, it was meant to bring about a far-reaching transformation in Indian society and, specifically, tackling private power. So power that exercise through institutions, whether they are social institutions like caste or economic institutions like the marketplace or cultural institutions, various religions. The Constitution, constitutional law, ideas of rights were envisioned as applying to what we classically understand as the private domain. In that sense the Indian constitution was meant to challenge the ideology, so to say, of the public-private divide. That's how I understand the transformative constitution in the Indian context.
UB: Perfect, thanks Gautam! I think one of the things that struck me was how much of the work of excavating these transformative elements happens through your reading of dissenting judgments. Now someone might look at that and think ‘well, great, there’re all these resources you’ve managed to identify in India’s legal history’. But on the other hand, one might think ‘why is this all just dissent—that’s worrying!’. So could you say a bit more about what's going on here?
GB: Historically the constitution's transformative impulses have been submerged by the adjudicatory body that is charged with being the final word on the Constitution, which is the Supreme Court of India. The dominant interpretation that the Indian Supreme Court has placed upon the Constitution and its provisions has been a conservative one. The transformative interpretation exists, and I use Edward Said’s idea of the ‘contrapuntal canon’. So there is a canon—there is the Indian constitutional canon of judgments which, despite a contrary long-standing public perception, encouraged by the Court, and by various scholars, is conservative. But then there are these dissenting judgments, some High Court documents, and the odd majority judgements as well. If you read these against the grain, in a contrapuntal way, you can excavate the transformative impulses that are there in the Constitution’s text and structure.
UB: As one reads the book, you get an idea of the substantive transformative elements in the constitution—especially their engagement with private regimes of power, or their focus on community ties that can infringe individual autonomy in all sorts of ways. But the other side of this story might be the conservatism of the constitutional text in procedural terms: the fact that the constitution set up elitist representative institutions with few opportunities for contestation by ordinary citizens. So, in a way, the transformative constitution was always likely to end up as a dissenting note. I wonder how wedded you are to the idea of transformative constitutionalism through the constitutional text.
GB: The great thing about texts is that they’re always open to interpretation. Something like a constitutional text, given the complicated social histories leading up to the framing of the Constitution, given that constitutional texts are invariably in the language of the abstract principle and not concrete commitments, given that a constitutional text is always open to a diverse range of interpretation—all this makes the interpreters task to bring together different elements, text, history, structure and so on—and fashion the most persuasive reading possible of the constitutional document and I think it is eminently possible to fashion a conservative reading of the document, given its history, and given the text. And that project hasn't happened yet, in my view, although some of H.M. Seervai’s work gestures towards that—though I wouldn't call it necessarily a right-wing interpretation. It is conservative in just placing the boundaries of interpretation as being contained by the text and not beyond that. So it is an essentially a legally conservative reading that he provides, although ironically It is far more rights-protective than a lot of the supreme court's own judgments. But the task that I see for myself as the interpreter is to use these materials that are in existence to fashion a persuasive transformative reading of the text of the constitutional law.
I don't think there is a view from nowhere, and there can’t be a non-engaged engaged standpoint. And my standpoint is from the internal perspective, which is that of a lawyer who works with the Constitution and who believes that there’s a set of important progressive goals that a Constitution is a vehicle towards achieving. It‘s a perspective which says that the Indian Constitution can and should be persuasively interpreted, so that it leads us towards those goals. I don't claim for myself the standpoint of an objective interpreter. I don't think there is any such standpoint but I am a participant and I'm saying ‘look, this is my argument and see if it's a good argument’. If somebody else has a better conservative argument for the Constitution, then fair enough. If that persuades you, as the public, then that’s perfectly fine. This is my argument I am placing before you and I hope that it persuades you.
UB: You’ve made it quite clear in the book that you’re telling us only the judicial side of the story of transformative constitutionalism in India, and that’s not the whole story. But could you say more about the trajectory of this idea outside the courts?
GB: I would recommend Rohit De’s book “A People's Constitution” that deals with the first decade after independence, throws light on how ordinary Indians understood the Constitution, leveraged it, and used it as a tool to expand their rights. And they weren't always successful but It really shows you how the Constitution became an idiom for language outside of the courts.
In the last few years—and this is a really cliched example by now—but the CAA protests are a really good example of the constitutional idiom going beyond the courts. I think what was really interesting about the CAA protests was that the protesters were really clear about the fact that they were advancing an understanding of the Constitution that derived its legitimacy and validity, not in the hope that it would be one day accepted by the Supreme Court, but by the force of argument alone outside of the Court. They fashioned a certain reading of the preamble of the Constitution, a certain reading of Article 14, the equality clause, and they were very careful to decentre the Supreme Court. If you look at the history of those protests and how the Constitution was used, it was always a reliance upon the document and there was no reference to the fact that there were pending constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court might or might not vindicate this understanding. It was a reading of the construction that stood on its own legs. That is one of the I think standout examples of transformative constitutionalism that did not rely upon the court.
If you look at a lot of work being done in Assam right now, in the aftermath of the NRC by lawyers like Aman Wadud, you find that they're setting up these Constitution centres in various places, explaining the Constitution. Again, they’re doing this without necessarily anchoring it to Supreme Court’s understandings of the constitution.
UB: Over the last few years, commentators like yourself have noted the rise of authoritarianism in India—and the courts have not been immune from this. You’ve expressed concerns about the extent to which one can continue pretending the judiciary operates along the line of rule of law. According to you, what’s the role of the lawyer in such circumstances?
GB: I think the role of the lawyer is a very difficult one, especially when it involves issues like the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), Kashmir, Aadhar—basically, issues involving state power and the constitution. You need a set of lawyers who will represent a client’s case as if everything was completely normal, as if this were a functioning democracy, with independent institutions. You need one set of lawyers, in my view, who will do that because that's work that needs doing. You also need a set of lawyers, whose knowledge of the practice of lawyering and judging, which is an internal perspective—because they've been in court—and no matter how careful an external analysis might be given, given the number of context-specific practices that can have developed over the years, there are things a lawyer sees just by virtue of being in court that are impossible to see from outside. So I think you also need a set of lawyers who draw upon that experience to mount a critique of the Court and the role the Court in checking or failing to check authoritarian tendencies and centralisation and so on.
I think that you need both kinds because as long as courts exists as centres of power, you need people who will speak in the language of the institution. But if that is the only kind of speaker that there is, the perception will remain of a well-functioning institution. So you will also need to have people who will critique the functioning of the institution. Yet, if you only have people who do that then there'll be nobody left to make the case inside the court. You need a combination of both things, I think. It's every lawyer’s decision, a question of conscience, what role you want to occupy. You have to have one of the two roles, assuming you have the privilege, the resources, and the luxury of choosing. I think one of those two roles is important when the situation is one in which authoritarian tendencies are overwhelming institutions.
Bruno Leipold: Oh, maybe I could jump in quickly and ask one question about the book. One thing that struck me is that you quite extensively draw on the idea of republican freedom. I would be quite interested to hear more the way in which debates about republican freedom were helpful to formulating your arguments about transformative constitutionalism?
UB: It also seemed that this was also one of the shorter chapters, and the sense I was getting was this isn’t something that's come up much with the court—except in a judgment where exploitative economic conditions for workers is interpreted as something like forced labour. Could you give us a sense of the judiciary’s further engagement with this idea? Has this notion come up again in other cases?
GB: Yeah so the second question is a shorter one so in brief, no, the PUDR judgement—which held that the right against forced labour includes a right to a minimum wage—is the only Supreme Court judgement to have given that interpretation to article 23. You find one High Court judgment 1994 in Allahabad that said something similar. But that's it, and I think it's just because the radical implications of that argument. So, after the PUDR judgement, there were a couple of Supreme Court judgements where people tried to rely upon PUDR as precedent and the court just shut them down and distinguished the case, and you know basically just kind of buried that that judgment. And I think it's obvious why because its just the implications are radical it, it would mean basically an anti-capitalist reading of the Constitution, which our courts or any set of courts anywhere are not willing to sanction.
As far as the role of republicanism goes, I think that the insight that republicanism provides for that kind of a reading of the forced labour clause is the focus on freedom as non-domination. Now classical republican theorists still locate the source of domination in a personalised manner, so you still need an identifiable person to pin that dominating power on. Which, of course, is not feasible and that's where workplace republicanism comes in, that is expressed I think most powerfully in writings of scholars like Corey Robin and William Claire Roberts and so on, is a depersonalisation and institutional or structural view of domination and of power.
So, if you just look at the classical understanding of fundamental rights and why they were applicable against the state, the idea was that the state has the has a monopoly over power. Right, and this idea of the monopoly then kind of runs through constitutionalism so when you want to affix liability for rights violations on a private party, a question that courts often ask is that does this private party exercise the monopoly over an important good or service, so if, for example, a body has monopoly over all the water supply, in an area or electricity in an area and it's discriminating and not say providing water to people of certain religion right, then the court can often argue that okay, because of its monopoly this private body has a state-like function, and therefore the constitutional rights provisions apply to it and therefore you know we are you know stopping this from going forward.
What that ignores is that you don't need to have a monopoly, but it may still be impossible to exit from an institution—which is the classic you know the whole point about the workplace and about labour, the labour market is that no individual capitalist has a monopoly, in fact, you know the capitalist is as constrained by the demands of capitalism, as the worker, it is the capitalist that has to constantly ensure that you know they're cutting costs and increasing profits because otherwise they’ll get out of business, and that we know that going back to Marx. So it's not it's not an individual capitalist who is a monopolist but it is the kind of a structure or the institution of the labour market that’s exercising that power through individual capitalists. So workplace republicanism I think gives us a way or a method to frame that insight and constitutional language and to say that therefore workers have constitutional rights against their bosses, even though a boss, is not the state.
UB: It's interesting you bring this up because there's so much in the book on private regimes of power, and that the book ends on the dangers of Adhaar (India’s biometric identity system). And it strikes me that one of the risks of Adhaar is very much it becoming something that private players start to emphasise; for instance, by linking private services to the Aadhar system. Is there a relationship of complicity between these private regimes of power and state power?
GB: Yeah, so I think in the Aadhaar case private regimes are operating under delegated powers from the states because Aadhaar is ultimately a nationwide centralised biometric identification system where the centralisation is by the state; the UIDAI is a state body and to the extent that private players can use the database, they do it on sufferance under Section 57 which was struck down, but then, of course pretty shamelessly reenacted by the government. So in the Aadhaar case it's actually the state power that’s being parceled out to private parties now, of course, I mean there is an argument to be made that you know the State itself is a terrain of class conflict, and so, to what extent is actually distinct from private parties? So I think that’s a political theory argument, but in terms of at least Constitutionalism and the law, the Adhaar cases I think straightforwardly involves state power and private parties do have and continue to weaponise the database for you know data gathering, data collection and use of data and denial of service and so on, but that, but their authority still flows from a law whereas the argument on private regimes was more that if you have something like you know caste enforced you know, social boycotts, it’s not really relying on the state in at least formal terms. Of course, I mean there's a long argumentative tradition coming from the legal realists in the US, that ultimately the legal regime is gapless so you know I mean, even if there is no formal law, the state by its inaction is allowing things to happen so there's always the state involved and in that sense there's no real private action that is not either sanctioned by or the sufferance of the state. So you go down that route, then of course I mean the States always involved, you know in every private action or if you don't go down that route, then you know the distinction between state sanctioned law, as in the Adhaar case and the case of caste boycott, cases where private employers have not been paying a minimum wage, and so on.
UB: Bruno I might let you take over now and may come back to them after you're done depending how much energy we leave him with.
BL: So let’s turn to the literary side of things. I read The Wall in December and I want to start by saying what a fantastic achievement it is. There’s not many people in the world that can write both constitutional theory and beautiful, engaging science fiction! What I really loved about the book, and I think quite a few reviews of the book have picked up on this, is how impressive the level of world building is. You set out everything from the city’s origin myths, its constitutional history, its religions, its literary culture—it’s all there. Perhaps I could start by asking if you could give our readers a sense of what the book is about and also what led you to write it? Its, of course, quite a gear shift from your day job as a constitutional theorist!
GB: Thank you! I’ll start with the second question. So while people might know me from my day job as a lawyer, I have actually been a science fiction fan since the age of 10 when my parents got me a copy of the Hobbit and then of Asimov's Foundation. Of course, the genre has moved beyond that now, but that was my introduction. So since the age of 10 I’ve been a huge fan and my teenage years were full of handwriting science fiction novels—pretty bad novels obviously! And then in 2015 I joined Strange Horizons the science fiction magazine as a non-fiction editor. I've been involved with them for the last five years now, five or six years. So my association with science fiction and fantasy, is something that is much older than my association with law and you know it's always been there and this novel actually began life back in 2008 when I was in college and I didn't at all know that I would go on to become you know, a full time lawyer and my day job or even stay with law, so its origins actually go back to even before I really got into law as a profession.
As to what the book’s about to put it simply it's a speculative fiction somewhere at the borders of science fiction and fantasy. It is set in a city that is enclosed completely within a very high wall that nobody has crossed in living memory. There is abundant water (the source of which is unknown), but every other resource is scarce. But that scarcity is not an ideological imposition, it's actually physically scarce, and therefore, the food and the wood and the material required for clothes and so on are all actually limited quantities. And that influences the social, economic and cultural structures that are present in the city. It's not a dystopia because there is just about enough there for everyone to be able to live a life that is not a life of squalor or a life of want so it’s not a dystopic city, but it is stasis, and it is contained.
And the core plot point is that there are a group of people who do want to find a way beyond the wall and know what lies beyond and the book is about their efforts to do that, in the face of hostility indifference and so on.
BL: These are the Young Tarafians, right? Do you want to say something about the other ideological and political factions in the book and the underlying political structure?
GB: At the broad level there are three factions in the city. One is the Governing Council of the city of Sumer, called the Council, or the Elders, which are a group of 300 people who govern the city. That political arrangement doesn't really borrow from any one thinker or historical example, but is most closely inspired by James Harrington the 17th century English philosopher, because of his idea of 300 people and how the balance between propertied and non-propertied classes is achieved. One interesting thing, for me at least, is that in Sumer they do democracy, but in a slightly different way, in that they are not elected, they are self-appointed, but every decision that they take is put to a referendum in the city. So although it's not democracy at the starting point as there are no elections, but it is a democracy at the at the end point, in that their decisions have to be put to a popular vote. However, there is one catch, which is that if you want to actually alter the property relations or underlying constitutional arrangements you have to have a two thirds majority. That’s an idea taken from Pinochet’s military constitution that enshrined neoliberalism, and that also gives you a clue about some of the underlying ideological debates in the book.
So the Elders or the Council are the secular governing body of the city, and then there are the Shoortans—the religious group. That's drawn from the idea that if you have a city within a wall and its very clear that the wall is not natural, it was built by someone. And that someone gave to the citizens, the exact amount of resources in exactly the right balance to enable them to survive. So, clearly there is a governing intelligence or a governing hand behind this, which would lead to all kinds of duelling origin stories that are born from the realisation that there had to be a creator. So Shoortans have a set of beliefs about the creation and that the purpose of the wall is to keep them safe and therefore it should not be crossed.
The final faction are the scientists, who are also called the Select, whose job it is to ensure that the city continues to run and to survive. They ensure that the proportions of the resources remain just right and that consumption remains at a level at which everyone can continue to survive. Because if you're living in a semi-closed system then a small change can lead to widespread devastation. So the scientist’s role is to ensure that things are kept on track and they're kind of exist with the other factions in a somewhat unstable equilibrium with each other, where you know there is a division of power, but it's a little uneasy and unstable.
BL: Between these factions there's also ideological disagreement over what one of the central concepts of Sumer really means, that is the concept of ‘Smara’.
GB: The idea of Smara is a bit of a cheat on my part because an Indian reader would kind of guess it’s meaning because it does draw from an Indian word. I'm sure when Udit reads the book when he sees the word Smara, he would have a rough idea of where that thought line is going but a non-Indian reader might not immediately.
Smara, broadly is this idea of yearning or the yearning for a world without the wall, although what exactly it means is contested. It's a feeling that everyone has experienced, in the sense that everyone at certain times has this feeling of being enclosed, of being trapped, this yearning to know what's beyond that. To be able to see a world in which there is a horizon, because they also don't have a word for the horizon, but to see a world where actually you know everything you see isn't cut off by the wall.
For some, this is actually a reason to go beyond the wall, to find out what's beyond that, so that they can put an end to this constant yearning and to understand what it means. For the Shoortans it's a signal that you're not supposed to go beyond the wall and you're supposed to remain within where life is stable. So this idea, as you said, plays an ideological role in the sense that for the dominant faction it becomes a reason to ensure the continuance of status-quo but for the Young Tarafians it becomes a reason to break the status quo. Later on in the novel you have certain dispute about its exact meaning and where it's coming from that enables, not to give away spoilers, some people to find a way to break the status quo.
BL: I want to pick you up what you say about there being some specific cultural references that make more sense to an Indian reader. For me, when I was reading the book, one of the really enjoyable things was the many references to classical Greece and Rome. You already mentioned Harrington as one of your sources, and I wanted how these different literary and historical sources influenced your writing?
GB: I think that this a function of growing up in India in the 1990s, where there is this whole range of influences that you're exposed to as a child. One set of influences is you know a lot of the classical Greek and Roman stuff in translation.
You would have noticed that there is a progressive councillor, a social reformer who wants to democratise land ownership within the city and he's obviously based on Gracchus, the Roman tribune. But in my book his name is Sanchika and Sanchika was actually the pen name of E. M. S. Namboodiripad, the first Indian communist elected Chief Minister who also carried out land reform.
There are also other myths in the book that are a blend of various influences. In an early part of the book there is this myth about two birds who try and fly up to the sun and one of them is about to have their wings burnt off but the other one protects them by shielding them. Now, this might sound like the Icarus myth, but it's actually a story from the Ramayana involving Jatayu and his elder brother, which shows you that there's a common source to all these myths and they evolve a little differently in different countries. But what may look like an Icarus myth to a western reader is actually slightly different, it has its own source in Indian myth.
One specific reference that I want to point out, which speaks to the question of ideology and some of the underlying debates in the book. At one point in the book, one of the scientists, says that look, you can vote for or against decisions, you can have your referendum, but you can’t really vote against the wall. Because the wall is part of reality, it's always there. That's directly a reference to Jean-Claude Juncker saying in 2015 after the Greek election that ‘there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties’. What that’s basically saying is look, you can have your domestic votes, in your own little country, but you can’t vote against neoliberalism, against the governing philosophy of the EU.
So, one of themes I'm exploring in The Wall is that neoliberalism, and capitalism in general, has this whole myth of scarcity. A lot of the edifice of neoliberalism depends upon this ideology of scarcity and there not being enough. But what if you had a situation in which that scarcity was not an ideological construct but was literally a key part baked into the world and there was an identifiable reason why there was scarcity. Then how would society evolve and what would the arguments be.
BL: The global melding of myths is really one of the many strengths of the book. Another that really impressed me is how you managed to weave in discussions about the Sumer’s constitutional history and political structure and do so in a way that is plausible and never gets in the way of the narrative. There’s not that much sci-fi that really takes the politics of the world-building quite so seriously (China Mieville perhaps comes to mind).
I suppose this bring us to the somewhat inevitable question about how your day-job, your academic work, relates to you science fiction writing. In some interviews you’ve been a little hesitant to draw those links. But when I was listening to your ideas on the transformative constitution in the first half of our interview, it did seem that there were some similarities in The Wall. Especially the idea that constitutionalism goes beyond the political and that it matters to social questions and the social sphere. So I guess I want to ask a quite open question, to what extent, if at all, there are these links between legal and constitutional work and your fictional writings?
GB: I think that, first of all, it's just the fact that most science fiction writers have a day job. Apart from the lucky few who can make a living off their writing, they most have day jobs and that always bleeds into bleeds into the science fiction. A physicist, or an engineer, when they write science fiction they ensure that the spaceship has the right dimensions and can fly, and so similarly, when a lawyer writes science fiction, they will ensure that the underlying legal arrangements are persuasive and reflect the larger world. So in that sense, your professional specialisation will always bleed into your writing because you’re just aware of the role that plays in whatever you're writing.
I think that, for me, the understanding that has come from many years of being in legal practice and also writing about law is how law and legal structures constitute the internal plumbing of the world and they're always there. We’re not always are aware of them, but they exist and they are what make actions certain actions possible or not possible. That’s the kind of thing that once you see you can't really unsee. So when you're doing world building for science fiction, you will factor in the law and constitutional arrangements into that world building.
And where societies are under heightened stress, whether Brexit in the UK or what Trump did in the US or the Citizenship Amendment Act in India, people do talk about the constitution at that point of time. Because that's when it really comes to the fore, so it's quite natural for people living in societies that are undergoing a certain kind of stress to think about, reflect about and debate constitutional arrangements. And that is something that is reflected in the book, because it is a society under stress and it is destabilised by the Young Tarafians who want to get beyond the wall. They are claiming that they have good reasons to do so and people want to stop them. So obviously the issue of what is allowed, what isn't allowed, what the law allows, what the society’s political arrangements allow, would come to the fore and would be discussed. So in that sense, of course, being a lawyer influences the vocabulary, in which those claims might be framed. To that extent there is an overlap and influence.
I think what I'm hesitant about, what I've been a little uncomfortable about, is people saying that this is legal science fiction or legal speculative fiction, that it is centered on law. Because, first of all, I'm telling a story, and that's what matters. As a writer you are trying to tell a good story and then you have all the things that go into making it a plausible world. Whether that is, for example, the understanding that in a semi-closed system, with no fauna, all your plants would need to be self-pollinating. So the only plants that your city can have are self-pollinating plants, so you then have to ask is cotton self-pollinating? It turns out it is, and therefore the clothes will be made of cotton.
So just like you pay attention to that kind of thing to make your world building plausible, you also pay attention to law to make it plausible. The fact that the writer is a lawyer should not distract attention from the story.
BL: We’re getting to the end of our time, so I wanted to ask how writing on the sequel is going. I think its called The Horizon?
GB: Yes, part two is called the Horizon and was finished in January. It's supposed to come out in September but given the Indian covid situation I don't know if that will happen or if it will be delayed. I haven't yet followed up because things are bad right now, and I think nobody should be pushed right now to work in India. So the formal release date was September and I don't know if it will be September, maybe a couple of months after.
BL: Of course. When it does appear I’m certainly going to buy it as soon as it's available.
GB: Thank you! Thank you so much, I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.
by Jonathan Joseph
Jacques Derrida died some 16 years ago and might seem an unlikely candidate for providing an analysis of the current Covid-19 epidemic. Yet I will summon Derrida here to provide a certain view of these exceptional times, drawing mainly on the arguments of his book Specters of Marx. Here, he remarkably refers to his philosophy of deconstruction—an approach more focused on text and meaning than on the material world—as a radicalisation of a certain spirit of Marxism. Using Marx to question the smug triumphalism of capitalism’s liberal supporters, this intervention seemed as much a challenge to the postmodern indulgencies of his own followers.
Now we might conjure up Derrida just as he conjured up Marx, to provide insights not only into that which is rotten in the state of today’s world, the decay that is exposed by the threat of the virus, but also to expose that which might not be quite right in some of the analysis of such rottenness in the world. Derrida conjured up the spirit or spectre of Marx without the heaviness of the body of Marxism, here now is perhaps an opportunity for Derrida to reappear, albeit spectrally, without some of the lightness of deconstruction. For Marx a spectre was haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. Derrida seizes on this bold claim, a claim that was not in fact realised. And yet: ‘The spectre that Marx was talking about then, communism, was there without being there. It was not yet there. It will never be there.’
Europe is currently being haunted by a new spectre. The Spectre of Covid-19. Part of Derrida’s comment about communism holds true. The virus is something intangible. It gives the impression of being here without being here. And yet it is most definitely here. It is not something to come. This seems obvious—yet Giorgio Agamben made an early intervention to claim that the pandemic is largely a fabrication designed to justify the measures of a state of exception. While the reality of the pandemic is now undeniable, its presence does have a bearing on how we understand European phantasmagoria.
For Derrida, this phantasmagoria was about capitalism. He writes of how commodities come to life through the process of exchange, thus assuming a mystical character. They become ‘the furtive and ungraspable visibility of the invisible … that non-sensuous sensuous of which Capital speaks’. The spectral charter of capitalist relations requires the bodilessness of money and the endless visible but invisible drive of speculation and accumulation. It is not hard to imagine Derrida’s thoughts on the recent financial crisis that gripped the Eurozone and the rest of the global economy.
Under neoliberalism we see human activity at its most commodified. Not simply through processes like commodity fetishism and financialisation, but through the spectral character of the single market, the Europe of free movement, which is one of the greatest illusions of all, a Europe whose ghostly free movements, facilitated by neoliberal ideology, are now rendered visible under the spotlight of the pandemic.
What the pandemic highlights is that the Europe of free movement is not a Europe of free people, but a form of governmentality that regulates conduct from a distance through the liberal imperative of freedom, promising us freedom of movement in return for our faith in the powers of the free market. It is, moreover, what Foucauldians would call a biopolitical construct, concerned with the administration and management of populations, which enables free movement but also severely constrains it for those deemed to fall into the wrong category of the population. Most notably, this was highlighted by another recent ‘European’ crisis, the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ which required all Europe’s biopolitical sophistication to keep out a plague of non-European migrants. Now biopolitics is turned on the insiders through the realisation that the threat can be inside any of us whose ghostly movements must now be rendered more visible by enhanced biopolitical practices, our ghostly traces can now be traced by new technologies.
In some senses, the pandemic follows on from the War on Terror in justifying a phantasmagoria of ‘exceptional measures’. This is what Agamben means when he claims that once terrorism was exhausted as a justification for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic was used to create a climate of panic, thus provoking a state of exception.
However, this is an astonishing claim for the obvious reason that the epidemic is clearly not an invention, not a product of discourse or effect of what Foucauldians might call ‘medicalisation’, but a reality. Furthermore, it is difficult to see why neoliberal regimes would wish to create a state of exception as a ‘normal governing paradigm’ when the measures we have seen introduced are so detrimental to neoliberal economies. Indeed, the popular debate in the media is of a clash between the neoliberal economic paradigm that wishes to keep the economy running even if this costs lives, and the exceptional state measures designed to limit the spread of the pandemic even if this causes severe disturbance to the economy.
The terrorist threat certainly was more of a fabrication, designed to justify an intensified regime of biopolitical measures. However, it supported a ‘normal governing paradigm’ that was more normal than exceptional, at least from a neoliberal point of view. This is the paradigm based around notions like resilience, an ideology that teaches us how to live in a world of complexity and uncertainty. Relating not only to terrorist threats, but all forms of crises, emergencies, shocks and disasters, ideas like resilience, wellbeing and sustainability—as a new trinity of governance encourage us to be self-reflexive and self-governing in the manner envisioned in Foucault’s account of neoliberal governmentality. Operating ‘from a distance’, resilience seeks to work through encouragement more than by direct coercion, devolving responsibility from the state to the individual, encouraging us to familiarise ourselves with the threats we face and even to show enterprise in the face of possible adversity.
Resilience is not or should not be the exceptional. Rather, it encourages us to adapt our normal everyday behaviour by conjuring up the spectre of something exceptional but which, like Derrida’s messianic, the expectation of something to come, is there without being there and which is ‘always to come’. For resilience to work as a form of governmentality it must instil in us a sense of preparedness or readiness for something that should always be ‘to come’. The pandemic is such a shock precisely because it is here. And in this sense it is unexpected. It is not supposed to be here. Its appearance has rendered governmentality more problematic.
The encouragement of responsibilised behaviour by means of ‘governance from a distance’ has been shown to be an illusion, unable to deal with real crises. Just as neoliberalism has been found materially wanting in the face of the resource-needs of the fight against the pandemic, so its phantasmagoria of governance, based around the ideological belief in resilience, has been shown spiritually wanting as well. The response in Europe and the West has exposed both the neoliberalism of the market, with its failed allocation of the necessary resources to combat the virus, and the neoliberal self-limiting regime of governance, with its belief that self-interested individuals will behave in the right way. Why would individuals behave responsibly when neoliberal ideology encourages us to show selfish opportunism?
The spectre, the revenant, comes back, not to play out an Agambenian tragedy of exception, but to shine a light on the farcical but deadly incompetence of neoliberalism’s day-to-day approach.
But maybe Covid-19 is not the spectre that is haunting Europe. Maybe the spectre is Europe itself. Covid itself is something real, something that is actually there, something that exists beyond all the texts about free markets and individual responsibility and strong states and states of exception. Contra Agamben, it was not a phantasmagoria, it was real. It happened to us.
If that is the case, then Covid-19 is more like Derrida’s inverted-mirror that holds up the image, the imaginary, and shows the limits of spectrality, the limits of the phantasmagoria that calls itself neoliberalism, the market, the associated ideas of resilience as well as some of the ideological discourse surrounding Covid-19 itself.
Whereas the mystifying mirror effect plays a negative ideological role in hiding, concealing, distorting, and mystifying, returning a different (deformed, objectified, naturalised) image, an image that is nevertheless an imaginary one. Covid-19 absorbs some of this mystery and remains somewhat unknowable, while around it offering some glimpse of reality- of the underlying social relations of capitalist production, of the value of human beings ‘in themselves’, while exposing the ghostly concealments of neoliberal ideologies, Eurocentric discourses and practices of governmentality.
This also shows the limits of Derrida’s thinking. For the virus, in showing itself to be more than a ghost, shows that there is more ‘out there’ than just hauntology—a bodiless realm which rejects the certain foundations of ontological existence. There is a neoliberal phantasmagoria, for sure, but this crisis has given us glimpses of the underlying, but all too real, reality.
 J. Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994), 92.
 Ibid., 100.
 G. Agamben, ‘The State of Exception Provoked by an Unmotivated Emergency’, Positions Politics (2020) available at http://positionspolitics.org/giorgio-agamben-the-state-of-exception-provoked-by-an-unmotivated-emergency/ accessed 1 April 2021.
 Ibid., 7.
 J. Joseph, ‘Derrida’s Spectres of Ideology’, Journal of Political Ideologies 6(1) (2001), 101–2.
 D. Chandler, ‘The Coronavirus: Biopolitics and the Rise of Anthropocene Authoritarianism’ Russia in Global Affairs 2 (2020). Available at https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/articles/coronavirus-authoritarianism/ accessed 1 April 2021. Agamben, ‘State of Exception’. .
 C. Salzani, ‘COVID-19 and State of Exception: Medicine, Politics, and the Epidemic State’, Paris Institute (2021) available at https://parisinstitute.org/depictions-article-covid-19-and-state-of-exception-medicine-politics-and-the-epidemic-state/?fbclid=IwAR0-JVomfNkHpWyckiNdhR0NUAbu8-AQRnsn2ln79cVabB81QpTTyeldv-k.
 Agamben, ‘State of Exception’.
 J. Joseph and J.A. McGregor, Wellbeing, Resilience and Sustainability: The New Trinity of Governance (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).
 J. Joseph, ‘Resilience as Embedded Neoliberalism: A Governmentality Approach’, Resilience: Policies, Practices and Discourses 1(1).
 Joseph ‘Derrida’s Spectres’, 103.
by Elizabeth Jordie Davies
“I can’t say too emphatically that we stand at a terminal point in history, at a moment of supreme world crisis. Destruction lies ahead unless things are changed. And things must be changed. And changed by the people.”
-- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
I approach Afropessimism with a question: what here can move us forward? I understand Afropessimism as an intellectual project, a description of the state of the world as anti-Black. Afropessimism asserts that Black people exist outside of the category Human and are fundamentally excluded from social and civil life. I also understand Afropessimism as having potential as a political project, one that presents both opportunities and challenges. In this way, I depart from Michael Dawson, who, in his essay “Against Afropessimism,” warns against Afropessimism’s anti-political stance.
Afropessimism makes an important political intervention by accounting for the slings and arrows of anti-Blackness, the indignities suffered by Black people and the right-ness of Black anger and despair. As such, slavery and anti-Blackness provide foundational understandings of the past and present by validating the Black experience and by explicating the relationship of Black people to the rest of the world. Even though Afropessimism itself locates Black people outside of politics, it prompts those of us who are interested in a politics after Afropessimism to consider what we might or can do in the face of a world that again and again refuses Blackness.
While I stress the political potential of Afropessimism, I also agree with and extend a few of Dawson’s criticisms of Afropessimism. I am particularly interested in the political stakes of centering Black death as the lens through which to view the world. Afropessimism’s singular lens is useful when naming the enduring problems of white supremacy and anti-Blackness; however, I worry that it limits the scope of political possibilities that can be pursued by linking anti-Blackness with the struggles of other marginalised people and by embracing the fights of multiply-marginalised Black people.
Thus, I conclude that a Black politics and Black life must be pursued beyond Afropessimism. Black culture and Black recognition provide the foundation that links Black people together beyond conditions of oppression, forms the basis of solidarity politics, and prompts us to imagine otherwise.
I. A Black Experience
Afropessimism offers a paradigm through which Black anger and despair can be fully recognised given the terrain of anti-Blackness, which is a result of the position of Black as “slave.” Wilderson’s Afropessimism follows and extends Hartman who locates Black people in the “after-life of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. Yet for Wilderson, the Black condition is not solely an “after-life” but a static condition of slavery and Black exploitation in relation to the rest of the world. Blackness is the “other” upon which the world turns and operates.
In reading Wilderson’s descriptions of his life experiences of racism, both micro and macro aggressions, it seemed clear to me something was being articulated that was familiar to all Black people, something worth acknowledging for the truth it reveals and the foundational understanding it provides: the Black experience of being unacceptable to white people, being outside of social life, and unworthy of recognition.
Wilderson recounts conversations with his childhood friend’s white mother, wherein she asks the “unasked question,” first through his friend, then directly “How do you feel, being a Negro?” This exchange echoes Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk, wherein he ponders, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Wilderson’s personal experiences, though in some ways limiting the scope of his argument due to his positionality as a middle-class man, provide entry into the experience of Blackness as Black autobiographical writing has done throughout history. The barrage of attacks on Wilderson from white neighbors and colleagues echo a common theme throughout Black biography: an outsider looking in, an invisible man, or a woman hiding in the attic.
Wilderson asserts that the senselessness and inhumanity of racism and anti-Blackness can only make sense if to be Black is to not be human but to be in the category of slave. He emphasises that the history and presence of anti-Black violence is insurmountable in the political arena. He expounds on this in conversation with Linette Park for The Black Scholar, wherein he declares that there is no need for some “telos” or “destination” for Black rage. Instead, Wilderson suggests we should “pick the scab and let Black people do the work of combustion” without the “mandate of uplift” or the “mandate of civil rights.” In this way, Wilderson says, we have a “mandate of true acknowledgement of what snaps in the mind from the death of Black desire, and we’re saying that’s okay. Because, nothing can happen in this world without Black people being at the core!”
I am open to the political implications of what it means to be neither in nor of the world, positioned outside of social and civic life, and inhabiting an outsider status from where one could let go of the present and strive for a different future. Following Jasmine Syedullah, I recognise that pessimism, in particular, can serve as a “prophetic defense against the future white supremacy makes all but inescapable...despair works to expose the limits of political agency, incorporation, representation, and progress.” Afropessimism, then, suggests that to reach for some common ground with a white supremacist system is and always has been futile, given the relentless and ongoing reality of Black death since slavery. This axiom allows Black people to step away and slip through an open door to something else.
Furthermore, I agree with Sexton when he writes “Slavery must be theorised maximally if its abolition is to reach the proper level.” Sexton goes on, “The singularity of slavery is the prerequisite of its universality.” I therefore agree that the emphasis on anti-Black slavery is a useful anchor, pulling the conversation to the crux of the matter. Only in a system defined by anti-Black slavery can the logics of racism, the carceral state, colorism, capitalism, persistent inequalities in wealth and status, and diasporic divisions of Black people across space and time make sense.
There is power in naming the reality of the present in the realm of a post-slavery continuum that demonstrates how what is remains linked to what was. If Black people remain in an undignified state of being, that helps explain ongoing dissatisfaction, anger, and uprisings. Black activists’ extension of the “abolitionist” fight from slavery to mass incarceration, for example, demonstrates the discursive power and mobilising potential of placing modern struggles within the long trajectory of anti-Blackness.
II. The Limits of Afropessimism
Despite the discursive power of slavery and anti-Blackness as the defining backdrop of the modern world, this framing has important limits. Dawson asserts that Afropessimism, in its singular focus on new world slavery, obscures the genocide of Indigenous people and flattens the experience of Black people. I argue that we must be able to reasonably acknowledge and centre the experiences of Black people vis-à-vis slavery, while also linking this struggle with other experiences of colonisation and marginality. Two things can happen at once. Attention to the struggles of others does not weaken or shrink the gravity of Black struggle.
Without acknowledging the struggle of other marginalised groups, Afropessimism, as Dawson writes, is theoretically limited by not acknowledging the context in which slavery occurs. Afropessimism loses the fuller story of white supremacy and ignores that the anti-Black capitalist world was made possible through centuries of genocide and displacement of Indigenous people. Without this story, we cannot comprehend Black peoples’ stakes in fights against capitalism, colonisation, and the fight for environmental justice. The lack of acknowledgement of the colonisation of Indigenous people at the outset of modernity withdraws Black struggle into itself and refuses to see the areas upon which collaboration, mutual interests, and common enemies can build a pathway forward.
In addition, Afropessimism needlessly limits the scope of its argument focusing solely on the trials of anti-Blackness. However, anti-Blackness, and sexism, and classism, and homophobia, and (etc)... are all defining and intersecting struggles in Black life. I do not think that the answer is mere recognition of these struggles, wherein simple acknowledgement or “representation” is the reliable answer. Rather, we should name these systems of domination as part and parcel of anti-Black practices because Black people bear the brunt of all of these “-isms” in distinct ways. The Black experience is expansive and we cannot ignore the variations in conditions that make for better or worse life chances.
I am concerned that Afropessimism forecloses questions of solidarity, refusing the possibility that Black people can ever benefit from true cross-racial solidarity, as well as refusing the power of Black led social movements.
Wilderson writes that “left-wing counter-hegemonic alliances” are “an essential terror” and that “coalitions and social movements—even radical social movements like the Prison Abolition Movement—bound up in the solicitation of hegemony, so as to fortify and extend the interlocutory life of civil society...ultimately accommodate only the satiable demands and legible conflicts of civil society’s junior partners (such as immigrants, White women, the working class), but foreclose upon the insatiable demands and illegible antagonisms of Blacks” (emphasis Wilderson’s).
There is something to be learned and understood from the assertion that everyone is anti-Black, and that there (perhaps) can be no pure solidarity. I accept that. When Wilderson recounts his Palestinian friend’s anti-Blackness, or when his father was called a n*gger by a Native American man, I do not excuse these as one-off experiences but as examples of the embeddedness of anti-Blackness. There is no good reason to ignore this fact and I am not here to suggest that we pursue cross-racial solidarity at the expense of Black safety and well-being, or that we should prioritise coalitional politics only, or before first building up Black political bonds.
But avoiding opportunities for solidarity leaves a lot on the table. Acting in solidarity connects multiple struggles against white supremacy and builds power, rendering solidarity a useful tool that can be used to accomplish political goals and better the terrain, even in an anti-Black world. And better is not perfect, but it is better.
It is better for Black people to be out of prison than inside of it, it is better for Black people to be able to vote than to not be able to vote, even as anti-Blackness says those voting rights are and will always be under attack. It is better for Black people to enter class struggle in solidarity with other workers. The fight for a free Palestine has always been and always will be intertwined with the Black freedom struggle. We cannot slide into a realm of futility that diminishes the value of waging political fights for subjugated people the world over.
This is not to say that progress is a given, or that there are no fights that Black people should refuse. It is not evident to me that the oft quoted Martin Luther King Jr. aphorism “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is accurate. I do not think that Black people should be in coalitions with people who deny their humanity. Black people will have to fight for every modicum of progress and will have to use discernment about who fights alongside. Guidance for these fights, though, can be found in a rich Black radical tradition. Furthermore, Black culture and Black community can serve as grounding and mobilising forces beyond the realities of anti-Blackness.
IV. Black Life Matters
“The archival of black life is more than counting the dead, the maimed, and the dispossessed. Rather, it holds a possibility of deep remembrance of the freedom dreams of our ancestors, those who walked before us, and walk beside us, and those yet to come. Freedom dreams don’t live in real time. They live in epiphenomenal time—that black (w)hole of our existence in which the past, present and future are coiled around each other like that tiny black curl at the nape of your neck your grandmama used to call a “kitchen.”
-- Zenzele Isoke, “Black Ethnography, Black (Female)Aesthetics: Thinking/ Writing/ Saying/ Sounding Black Political Life”
While Afropessimism offers an intellectual path away from this world, it does not fully revel in the pleasurable cultural experiences of being Black. This includes the continuum of common experiences, language, and culture through which Black people are able to recognise, know and acknowledge each other. Thus, the pathway forward after Afropessimism must be sought elsewhere.
Sexton argues that “Nothing in afro-pessimism suggests that there is no black (social) life, only that black life is not social life in the universe formed by the codes of state and civil society, of citizen and subject, of nation and culture, of people and place, of history and heritage, of all the things that colonial society has in common with the colonised, of all that capital has in common with labour—the modern world system. Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space.”
It may be the case that Black social life is lived outside of civil society. But even so, Black social life and culture deserves a central place in the condition of Blackness as it has always been there, moving Black people through and forward. New and old Black feminisms and Black queer politics provide rich, grounding traditions of expansive togetherness, inclusion and safety for all Black people, even as these were and are located outside of mainstream feminist and queer movements. Though the world is predicated on Black death, Black people can be revived through Black collectivity. As Kevin Quashie writes, “Antiblackness is part of blackness but not all of how or what blackness is. Antiblackness is total in the world but not total in the black world.”
Black art and literature, Black music, call and response traditions, the Black church: there is so much we give for and to us that gives cause and reason to carry on, to not despair, and to fight at least for the space where we can be us, even if that space is outside of the social world. Traditions seen as errant and often unrecognised for their artistic contributions mean something to Black people and demonstrate that Black existence is more than just a condition of slavery. We should revel in who Black people are in spite of anti-Blackness, not to ignore its persistence but to honour those who came before.
While we must take care not to, as Hartman warns, “fill in the void” with political projects that are ultimately integrationist, nor reclaim struggles against anti-Black violence as some demonstration of otherworldly strength or endurance. I think, however, there are ways to revel in Blackness that exists outside of what are typically seen as justice-bent goals or characteristics, like integration or endurance. Black people can, in fact, revel in their outsider status, as Hartman demonstrates in her book Wayward Lives, and build a “transformational politics from below,” as Cohen discusses in her essay, “Deviance as Resistance.”
In this essay, I find important political potential in grounding anti-Blackness as the defining condition of the world, as it validates and speaks to the Black experience. However, I also agree with Dawson’s critique that Afropessimism does not adequately recognise the struggles of other marginalised groups and homogenises the Black experience.
I find important limitations in the theory of Afropessimism as it forecloses possibilities for linked solidarity struggles by minimising the struggles of other marginalised groups outside of Blackness. Even as the outsider status of Blackness provides a generative space to pursue a different world and even revel in Black life, Afropessimism alone does not fully appreciate Black cultural traditions.
We may hold Afropessimism as a truism describing the state of the world; but I see Black radicalism and Black feminism as the imaginative, world-building politics that provide a path forward. Author and womanist Alice Walker, speaking at an Anti-Nuke Rally at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1982, offers food for thought in this regard:
“Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it. In any case, Earth is my home—though for centuries white people have tried to convince me I have no right to exist, except in the dirtiest, darkest corners of the globe.
So let me tell you: I intend to protect my home. Praying—not a curse—only the hope that my courage will not fail my love. But if by some miracle, and all our struggle, the earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything is alive) will save humankind.
And we are not saved yet.
Only justice can stop a curse.”
 Ellison, R. 1995. Invisible man. New York: Vintage International.
 Hartman, Saidiya. 2007. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux: 6.
 Wilderson, Frank. 2020. Afropessimism. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation: 24-27.
 Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903, 1994). The Souls of Black Folk. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 1.
 Park, Linette. 2020. “Afropessimism and Futures of …: A Conversation with Frank Wilderson.” The Black Scholar 50(3): 40.
 Gordon, Lewis R., Annie Menzel, George Shulman, and Jasmine Syedullah. 2018. “Afro Pessimism.” Contemporary Political Theory 17(1): 128.
 Sexton, Jared. 2011. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afropessimism and Black Optimism.” InTensions Journal. Issue 5: Fall/Winter. Toronto: York University: 33.
 Ibid, 33.
 Or, perhaps Afropessimists would say, slower or faster deaths.
 Wilderson, Frank. 2020. 222-223.
 Ibid,12-13 & 44.
 Isoke, Zenzele. 2018. “Black Ethnography, Black (Female) Aesthetics: Thinking/ Writing/ Saying/ Sounding Black Political Life. Theory and Event, Vol 21(1): 149.
 Sexton, Jared, 2011. 28.
 Quashie, Kevin. 2021. Black Aliveness, Or a Poetics of Being. Durham; London: Duke University Press: 5.
 Hartman, Saidiya V. and Frank B. Wilderson. 2003. “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle 13(2): 186.
 Cohen, Cathy J. 2004. “Deviance As Resistance: A New Research Agenda for the Study of Black Politics.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 1(1): 42.
 Walker, Alice. 1983. “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Barbara Smith, ed. New York: Kitchen Table—Women of Color Press.
by Marcus Lee
Michael Dawson’s critique of Afropessimism centers primarily on the striking inattention to historical detail in the writings of Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton. Both writers pose slavery and the present as so deeply interwoven that claims of historical continuity require neither explanation nor qualification. Wilderson writes, “The changes that begin to occur after the Civil War and up through the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and the American election of a Black president are merely changes in the weather. Despite the fact that the sadism [i.e. spectacular, gratuitous violence] is no longer played out in the open as it was in 1840, nothing essential has changed.” Sexton likewise suggests that the structural relations constitutive of slavery remain pervasive and are unyielding, “regardless of variance or permutation in [their] operation across the better part of a millennium.” According to Dawson, these sweeping claims, as well as many of the other theoretical maneuvers in Wilderson and Sexton’s writings, work to obscure rather than clarify the terms of antiblackness and result in a general loss of analytic purchase on the current moment.
I appreciate Dawson’s historically informed critique. Wilderson and Sexton often substitute rhetorical flourish for the opportunity to parse historical detail or substantiate claims. In reading Wilderson’s memoir, Afropessimism, however, I am struck by his unique mode of narrative theorising. Whereas Dawson bases his critique in empirical precision and historical specificity, Wilderson revels in the personal and the polemical. Wilderson’s sweeping claims, on my reading of them, do not just constitute historical slippages or inaccuracies, but also imply that history itself is somehow beside the point or irrelevant to his theoretical propositions. In other words, there seems to be a certain methodological incongruence between Dawson’s critique and Wilderson’s writing: while the former is concerned with material histories, the latter is theorising on different grounds entirely. This is not to diminish the significance of Dawson’s response; critical readings need not occupy the same analytic register as the objects to which they are responding in order to be generative. And—regardless of the utility of historical observations in Wilderson and Sexton’s writings—Dawson is correct to warn against the real-world implications of glossing over records of struggle and political economic change in order to craft theory. As he notes: “What is at stake is far more critical than an academic debate between abstract theorists.”
Still, the methodological incongruence between Dawson’s critique and Wilderson’s Afropessimism begs a set of questions: To what extent can historical data serve as counterevidence to a text whose animating assumption appears to be that history matters little? How might a more immanent critique of Afropessimism be constructed? What grounds Wilderson’s theoretical propositions, if not history? In other words, how does Wilderson arrive at Afropessimism and what might be said about the case material that gets him there?
The starting-point for this brief essay is Wilderson’s implicit invitation to read Afropessimism differently: not just as a field of critical theory or school of thought, but as a historical mood, a sensibility, or—what Jafari Allen would call—a “habit of mind.” What interests me are not Wilderson’s empirical or historical observations, of which he offers few in Afropessimism, but his narrative strategy. Following the literary styles of writers like Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, and Saidiya Hartman, Wilderson fills his text with accounts of ordinary, yet personally formative encounters: a conversation with his grandmother, a fight at a boys’ club, an embarrassing moment with a romantic partner, drama with the landlord, a cab ride, office hours with a student, etc. The details of his narration—including its organisation, whom he does and does not give voice, and which encounters warrant reflection—provide the basis of his case for Afropessimism. I submit that readers might gain additional traction on the theoretical innerworkings of the text by examining the implications of Wilderson’s genre choice and writerly tendencies.
One of the noticeable features of Afropessimism, on my reading, is how little narrative significance Wilderson assigns to dialogue among Black people. Although he describes Afropessimism as “Black people at their best,” Wilderson narrates very few scenes of Black people at all. Instead, he provides many accounts of one Black person—himself—being alienated by his non-Black counterparts—e.g. a conversation between he and a Palestinian friend; a game of “secret agent” between he and three White childhood neighbors; a reception with non-Black attendees of a workshop in Berlin. It is through these encounters and others like them that Wilderson comes to recognise his standing in the world as a Black person. However, he gives short shrift to moments of intra-racial witnessing. To the extent that Wilderson does narrate encounters between and among Black people, he nearly always presents them as scenes of resentment, anxiety, or failed intimacy. In this way, Black people appear to have no moments of recognition between them—certainly no intra-racial sociality—but only what he calls “intra-Black imbroglio”: enduring confusion, painful embarrassment, or bitter misunderstanding.
Perhaps, then, it is not just a stubborn inattention to history that leads Wilderson to elide the development of intra-racial communication networks, art and literary circles, political institutions, churches, and mutual aid societies across the late-19th and 20th centuries (or what Dawson calls “the formation of modern black civil society”), but rather a more fundamental failure to imagine generative relationships between and among black people. Or, perhaps his tendency to discount patriarchy is not just the result of empirical imprecision, but is linked to how he narrates relationships and encounters with Black women—for instance, how might we understand Wilderson’s infatuation with Bernadette, onto whom he projects fantasies of an unnamed, slain Black woman? Or his general tendency not to reflect on relationships with Black women at all, except when their lives indicate forms of violence that prove rhetorically useful in his narrative? Maybe Wilderson’s insistence that “Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness” is not only a misreading of the historical record, but also the product of a habit of mind attuned to seeing “intra-Black imbroglio” first. What I am suggesting here is that Wilderson’s sweeping claims are not just inaccurate observations, but are indicative of a practice of reading, a sensibility—one more invested in the rhetorical uses of anti-black violence and death than the historical fact or political implications of intra-racial sociality.
The current uptake of Afropessimism within and outside of the academy indicates that many find its habits of mind appealing. This is likely attributable, at least in part, to the countless episodes of violence and democratic failure that shape our present: the mediatised killings of Black people, the election of Donald Trump (despite the popular vote), the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (despite—or maybe because of—their major political contributions to the expansion of prisons and police), inequitable access to COVID-19 related health care, etc. Black people have good reason to feel pessimistic. However, it seems that Afropessimism does not only model pessimistic feeling, but also a set of practices or a sensibility that discounts intra-racial sociality. We lose more than we gain, politically speaking, when our rage toward the world is undercut by a failure to witness each other. Countering the perils of Afropessimism requires historical correction as well as the development of an alternate habit of mind.
 Frank B. Wilderson, Afropessimism (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2020), 96.
 Jared Sexton, “People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery,” Social Text 28 (2(103)) (2010), 37.
 Jafari Allen, “One View from a Deterritorialized Realm: How Black/Queer Renarrativizes Anthropological Analysis,” Cultural Anthropology 32(4) (2016), 620.
 Wilderson, Afropessimism, 40.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 152–5.