Ben Margulies reviews a book that examines the complex politics of racism that is at play in some of the major democracies of the developed world.
Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter, Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream (Verso, 2020), 240pp.
In the 2014 film Dear White People, Sam White (Tessa Thompson) hosts an eponymous radio program on a fictional university campus, devoted to provocatively exposing the sometimes overt, sometimes unconscious racism of the white majority. At one point in the film, Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert), calls her show “racist.” White’s response is to deny that Black people can be racist:
Dean Fairbanks : Your show is racist.
Sam White : Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system [emphasis mine].
White’s statement may not be true in every circumstance. But it nicely distinguishes between the traditional, mainstream idea of racism, and how activists and younger generations increasingly understand the term. For much of the past half-century, majority opinion has identified “racism” with what White calls “prejudice” – effectively, an individual hatred of people who are of a different race from oneself. This is why so many American descriptions of the Civil Rights Movement stress its struggle against the forces of “hate,” as if the primary factor in Jim Crow was a deep personal hostility toward African-Americans.
What we are now coming to understand – and what the Black Lives Matter movement has helped to publicize – is that racism is in fact a political structure, a set of institutions designed to maintain certain races in power and certain races outside it. It does this work by exalting the dominant race(s) and demeaning or ignoring the subaltern ones as unfit in some way. Racism does not necessarily require any conscious animus, and it can survive and thrive within a system that calls itself anti-racist. Maintaining this system requires a number of tactics and stratagems. Reactionary Democracy, the new book by Aurelien Mondon of the University of Bath and Aaron Winter of the University of East London, is in large part the story of these complex politics of racism in some of the major democracies of the developed world.
Mondon and Winter’s objective is to demonstrate how mainstream political and economic systems maintain the racist structures that form central parts of their architectures of governance. They also chart how groups outside the mainstream – extremists, the radical right, and “populists” – position themselves as “racist.” Ultimately, outsiders and the mainstream “liberals” are in fact in a symbiotic relationship. Both need the other as scapegoats, so the liberals can claim to be anti-racists, and the outsiders can claim to be oppressed.
Reactionary Democracy is built around two dichotomies. The first is between the “mainstream” and the fringes. The former is equated across much of the text with “liberalism.” The second dichotomy is between “illiberal” and “liberal” racism. “Illiberal racism” is the sort of racism based on the idea that races or peoples are biologically distinct. Mondon and Winter draw on Michael Banton’s threefold definition of this type of racism, which conceptualizes race as a) descent from common ancestors (with a sort of “blood guilt,” such as the curse of Ham or the charge of Christ-killing); b) a common type, like a Linnean classification, and; c) a “subspecies” (12-14). Illiberal racism assumes that differences between peoples are fixed, hierarchical, unchanging and usually antagonistic.
“Liberal racism” is the creative adaptation of racist structures to make them compatible with contemporary political liberalism. Since World War II, Mondon and Winter contend, open racism has been discredited; rhetorically, liberals embrace universal human equality and dignity. (In Postwar (2005), the late liberal historian Tony Judt observed that Holocaust remembrance culture is central to the culture of twenty-first century Europe and the European Union). Liberals once accepted racism and eugenics as “scientific,” as Domenico Losurdo explained in The Counter-History of Liberalism (2011); since the mid-twentieth century, biological racism has been unacceptable.
However, liberal democracies are not really egalitarian, and racism still persists. Liberals deal with this by reimagining racism and history in ways that conceal structural racism, the sort of racism Sam White so perceptively identifies. Liberals spin a historical narrative that locates racism in a past overcome: “Through the celebration of certain national events and the erasure of others, our societies have managed to ignore, downplay or deny many of the darkest aspects of the political system currently underpinning our societies” (56). This allows them to claim that society is now “color-blind,” which delegitimizes any claims that racism persists. Reactionary Democracy cites Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley: “Racelessness is now equated with racial neutrality, which in turn is represented as whiteness” (63). Thus, claims of racism become oppressive: “Whiteness structures the west, but … the post-racial allows for denial, and even a claim of lost privilege” (66). Anyone targeted for “white privilege” becomes a victim. “The responses to Black Lives Matter are again illustrative of this point: All Lives Matter is the liberal, post-racial, color-blind response; White Lives Matter is the extreme-right one” (66).
Liberals define racism solely as biological racism or hatred, obscuring racist structures or different forms of racism. This creates a neat scapegoat, while allowing liberals to attack racialized groups as culturally deficient, or to claim that the consequences of racist systems are actually the result of other, “natural” or cultural factors (62). Thus French liberals hurl invective against the hijab not because Muslims are essentially evil, but because their culture allegedly oppresses women, whom the Republic must liberate (93-94). The radical right, too, has moved to re-classify its biological racism, its fascist heritage, as a system of cultural discrimination; Mondon and Winter teach us that liberals did this first.
Because liberals do not actually acknowledge that racism persists, the mainstream they constitute and police cannot actually prevent illiberal racism from penetrating its boundaries. “The mainstream is constructed, contingent and fluid,” and “also dependent on what we contrast with it as ‘extreme’” (115). This means that the barrier between mainstream and extreme is not always the same as that between liberal and illiberal, which allows both sides to make use of different kinds of racism as the situation dictates. Racism penetrates the mainstream in two ways. Firstly, the far right adopts liberal racism to make itself appear less extreme to centrist and center-right voters. The Front National/Rassemblement National is well known for this strategy of de-diabolisation (I discussed it in this 2015 blogpost). Secondly, mainstream liberals use liberal and illiberal racism to bolster their own projects. Mondon and Winter cite (133-36) Nicolas Sarkozy’s quite open embrace of illiberal racism during his campaigns and tenure in office (2012-17). Sarkozy talked of a blood-and-soil nationalism, drawing on the anti-Dreyfusard writer Maurice Barrés (135), while condemning Africans (at a speech in Senegal, no less) for not having “entered history enough” (134).
The idea that there is a “liberal” and an “illiberal” racism is not Mondon and Winter’s own: As they note, Arun Kundnani explores a similar division between “conservative” and “liberal” Islamophobia in The Muslims are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror (2014), with relation to attitudes towards Muslims. Similarly, Daphne Halikiopoulou Steven Mock and Sofia Vasilopoulou talk about how the radical right had begun to embrace a “civic” rather than an ethnic nationalism in a 2013 article.
What Mondon and Winter do is provide an accessible overview of how the process of mainstreaming can work, and how this process functions more at the level of public discourse than in the electoral arena. Their book is also a forceful demand for accountability, as they indict a number of academics, intellectuals, journalists and politicians by name for deploying a mix of liberal and illiberal racism that reinforces racism in general. They call out professors who defend white xenophobia as justified self-interest, like Jordan Peterson’s defense of “majority privilege” (85-86), David Goodhart’s calls to protect the “Somewheres” from immigration and accusations of perpetuating racism (97-98), and Eric Kaufmann’s claims that “Racial Self-Interest Isn’t Racism” (102). They excoriate “free speech” defenders whose main concern is the right to loudly attack groups who might benefit from a less racist polity, and point out that Charlie Hebdo was never a paragon of free speech; when it published the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons in the mid-2000s, it had been engaged in “yet another attack on Islam and anyone even remotely associated with the religion” (76). (For those of you who enjoy these sorts of arguments, they also play out on Twitter – endlessly.)
They also explain the role of “populism” in the liberal construct. Mainstream politicians often conflate populism and racism, but the concepts are quite distinct. Populism is a mode of politics which imagines a battle between two actors – the people and the elite. Neither need be defined by race. However, many populist actors do in fact define the people racially or ethnically, and then cast immigrants alongside the elites as an additional “Other.”
By equating populism and racism, Mondon and Winter argue, liberals forge for themselves a useful political Swiss Army knife. By making “the people” the source of racist demands, the liberals can take advantage of the radical right’s “racist and exclusionary ideals, laundering them as popular and democratic demands” (194). At the same time, they can condemn the people as racist, which makes liberal technocracy more attractive (195). Furthermore, by conflating “populism” and “racism,” liberals can also attack often anti-racist left-wing populists, or even just left-wing demands for redistribution and radical reform (196-97).
Academia again contributes to this problem. It often speaks of “populism” rather than “racism.” Political scientists – myself included – spend inordinate amounts of time and energy studying the radical right, giving the impression that it is the main or only challenger to the mainstream, which tends to buttress the mainstream. Mondon and Winter devote considerable time to the way political scientists ignore increasing rates of abstention, especially among working-class and lower-income voters. This exaggerates the size of the radical right – for example, during the fraught French presidential election of 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the runoff, but only won 11.66% of registered voters – up from 11.42% in 1995 (38). It also tends to exaggerate the degree of working-class support for these parties. (Cas Mudde also notes this tendency to exaggerate working-class attachment to far-right parties in his latest book, The Far Right Today.).
Reactionary Democracy is praiseworthily thorough, even though it primarily focuses its case studies on the United Kingdom, France and the United States. However, in describe the pathways racism travels between mainstream and fringe, liberal and illiberal, it doesn’t always describe its terms in enough detail. Mondon and Winter clearly identify “liberal racism,” but not “liberalism” – they do not define the key features of the liberal school of thought, or which actors in Britain, France and the US could be classified as liberals. This is a problem, because “liberalism” includes many of the activists – white and not white – who are trying to deconstruct liberal racism. The authors do an excellent job explaining why the mainstream is fluid and not automatically liberal, but they muddle their arguments by not explaining what liberalism is. This also risks blaming “liberals” as a group for the failures of modern political and economic order, which is also something apologists for the far right do, like Goodhart or (in my opinion) Christophe Guilluy.
The liberal-illiberal dichotomy also eliminates another key camp: Conservatism. Reactionary Democracy rarely mentions conservatives, even though they are both mainstream actors and often willing to embrace racist technologies of rule. Corey Robin describes inequality and its defense as a key feature of conservatism. So where does mainstream conservatism fit in?
Mondon and Winter’s conclusion is that both the mainstream and the radical right are effectively co-dependent. They define themselves against each other, but really, “Liberalism is not in essence a bulwark against the far right, and the far right is not a mortal threat to liberalism in its current capitalist hegemonic version” (206). Each side pretends that they are the only players in a duel, which allows liberals to claim that “discussion of the role of capitalism and liberalism in the perpetuation of injustice based on race, class and gender” is “peripheral” (206). The solution, then, is clear. To break the hold of all types of racism, we must also attack illiberal capitalism. To end reactionary democracy, we need a left.
Ben Margulies is a former university lecturer and freelance writer based in London, United Kingdom. He has taught politics at the University of Essex and the University of Brighton, and did postdoctoral work at the University of Warwick. He is originally from Dallas. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2020.