I shouldn’t have been surprised by Brexit. And I shouldn’t have been surprised by the intensity of Donald Trump’s support among a volatile electorate. Living in a too-homogenous left-wing enclave on the West Coast, I was caught off guard. But I should have known better: I study racial and religious politics in Europe for a living, and this story is so familiar it hurts. So when the New York Times posted a video of Trump supporters screaming vicious racist epithets at a rally a few weeks ago, to tell us all to look! Pay attention, America! This is the sound of fascism reborn!, I pulled a book off my shelf that I haven’t read since my grad student days. I’ve been shoving it into the hands of everyone I know, in person and online. Here you go! Read this!
I’m shoving this book at you, reader, because if there is any text that makes sense of what in the holy hell is going on in the world right now, it is Doug Holmes’s Integral Europe: Fast-Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neofascism. A respected cultural anthropologist, Holmes spent years in the late 1990s conducting ethnographic research among Italian peasants, neo-Nazi hooligans in East London, and right-wing French politicians. The culmination of his immersive fieldwork is a book that reads like a guide to understanding the miserable summer of 2016, the summer when things fell apart in parts of the world where things aren’t supposed to fall apart. But these problems have been brewing for a very long time. And that, more than anything, is what we need to understand if we, as peace-loving residents of the planet Earth, are going to weather the political storms to come. First, we should understand that this story is old; it began over three hundred years ago with the Enlightenment, with the French and American Revolutions, and the birth of liberal democracy [i.e. one man, one vote] as a way of organizing human relations.
Second, we should understand that if we rely on grand, simple narratives, we just make things worse. For example, a canard I hear often: “Neoliberalism makes people racist.” It doesn’t. Racism makes people racist. The racism was there before the economic precarity. The question is, where does the racism come from, and why does economic instability seem to bring these dark feelings to the surface? This is a complicated question with a complicated answer and the problem will never be resolved with an impatient analysis.
Here we are, sharing a world with people who do not share our intuitions about how the world works. It’s a problem.
A patient analysis pays attention to how economic and cultural forces intertwine, and how this intertwining defies the logic of simple causality. Life is messy, and full of seemingly contradictory truths. But these contradictions can be reconciled if we a) consider history and b) let go of the need for either/or answers. Doug Holmes's argument requires patience: it is both broadly historical and refuses to settle for an either/or. I’m here to persuade you that it is worth hanging around for, not only to understand why fascist thoughts and sentiments remain alive and well under the surface of civilized liberal democracy, but also in order to understand what is really at stake in our election, in our two-party system, and in our relations with the rest of the world. The real problem, the crux of the battles among white supremacists and multiculturalists, among isolationists and cosmopolitans, among nationalists and Europeanists, among neo-fascists and capital-L Liberals, is a theory of society itself.
Bear with me.
If we can get through this together, we can start asking better questions.
Why threaten violence over a theory of society? Preposterous, no? No. We all have a theory of society, somewhere deep down in our intuition. We all have a sense of what it is to be a person [we are all rational actors pursuing our own self-interest! Or not.], what it means to live well with others [good fences make good neighbors! Or not.], whether and how our environment shapes our identity, our chances, our outcomes [we all benefit from public education, public sanitation, public fire departments! Or not.] Our theory of society reflects our most basic understanding and experience of how the world works, and when we talk to someone who doesn’t share our basic sense of how the world works, we tend to think they are crazy, or ignorant, or stupid. If we are feeling fancy, we might call them “ideologically blind.”
Few things enrage people more than being told that they are crazy, or stupid, or ideological. But here we are, sharing a world with people who do not share our intuitions about how the world works. It’s a problem.
The political, economic, and social structures of the world we live in were devised in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries by people who had a particular set of intuitions about how the world works. We start with the Enlightenment, the end of feudalism and the Divine Right of Kings, the Scientific Revolution, and state-building nationalists. These movements gave us new words to think about the relationship between individuals and groups. Where once we had Christians and Christendom, Muslims and the Ummah, peasants and empire, now we have words like the individual, the citizen, the nation. And we have laws and flags and passports and border police to give these words weight, and make them real in our experience. It was a violent, intense process — Word War 1 didn’t come out of nowhere — and required not just political transformation but technological and cultural transformations too, like newspapers and founding documents and heroic ancestral myths.
But the really fundamental idea that the Enlightenment gave us, the seed of later discontent, was the individual, free and equal to all other individuals, guided by universal reason, and thus emancipated from irrational sources of authority like tradition, or religion, or culture. One person is just like another, wherever in the world you find them. [Of course, in the era of colonial conquest, Enlightenment philosophers had some trouble with race. More on this later.]
Freedom, individualism, and rationality — these are more than ideals, they are theoretical propositions about human nature. It took fighting revolutions in France and America to make make them feel real. But the Enlightenment spawned its own backlash: the Counter-Enlightenment. Rationalism was seen as disenchantment; the atomization of the individual as alienation; freedom from tradition, religion, and a grounded sense of belonging as tragedy. The German philosopher Johann Herder (1744-1803) gave these ideas philosophical legitimacy. His work on the philosophy of language and the science of culture gave rise to the modern social sciences and lent authority to the very idea that there is such a thing as a people, an ethnic group, a nation. For Herder, such a group has a soul and a genius of its own, conveyed by its language and tied intimately, through blood, to the soil on which it was grown. Because local reason cannot exist everywhere, because it is grounded in blood and soil, there is no basis for believing in a universal system of governance. (Hence, distrust of supranational organizations like the European Union and the United Nations). Making political decisions for one community in one place cannot possibly translate into comparable political decisions in another. Cultural essentialism underlies the very premise that a territorially bounded nation is meant to be self-governing. The international legal principle of state sovereignty rests, in part, on this cultural essentialism. Self-determination means we can only be free doing things our own way on our own land.
In this theory of society, the Enlightenment, given its worst expression in the French Revolution’s terrifying aftermath, fractured our humanity, while the Romantic sensibilities of the Counter-Enlightenment offer to re-integrate us. Holmes traces the values expressed in these ideas to a broader set of values shared across Europe among people who aren’t fascist; ordinary people who simply feel emotionally connected to the place they live in and the traditions they grew up with, or who find some resonance in the idea that we have lost something authentic and meaningful from the past. Holmes calls this integralism, and makes a powerful case for not simply dismissing every expression of integralist politics as fascist. The nuances matter. Look at your local artisanal slow food movement: you’ll see the same values. Authenticity, locality, tradition, community, creativity: not necessarily evil under all circumstances. But the potential for evil is there, if we are not careful.
Holmes’s analysis of integralism builds on a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin (1909 – 1997), a Russian-British liberal philosopher, on the history of ideas leading up to the Enlightenment. For Berlin, the political tension between the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment rests on two different approaches to understanding human nature. Do we think people are basically all the same? Or do we have fundamental and irreconcilable differences? How we approach this question has major consequences for how we organize and govern ourselves.
Integralism encompasses three premises: populism, expressionism, and pluralism. Populism posits that there is a value to belonging to a group, and that capitalism threatens this belonging by displacing populations and commodifying labor—capitalism produces alienation and destroys meaningful community. Expressionism posits that every collective practice, from voting to eating to religious ritual expresses your identity, which in turn reflects your belonging to your group. Pluralism, from an integralist perspective, is the premise that the different groups that we belong to are not just different, but irreconcilably different. Our values are too mutually opposed for us to live together peacefully, so we shouldn’t live together.
White America's cultural inheritance is European integralism.
In this worldview, cosmopolitanism — the quality of being an open-minded citizen of the world, at home anywhere — is not a virtue. Cosmopolitanism is rootless, unmoored from blood and soil and the basic necessities for ethical living. Worse yet, according to the thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment and the nationalists who loved them, cosmopolitanism is based on a specious claim to universality. Cosmopolitanism is empty and alienating. For the heirs of the Counter-Enlightenment, everything good and beautiful and worth living for is local and authentic and full of spirit. Cultural differences are worth preserving. In its most extreme formulation, the integralist attitude towards cultural difference becomes the rationale for discriminatory practices of inclusion and exclusion. In integralist politics, in its varying shades from your local artisanal cheese-maker to your skinhead white supremacist, we live in a world disordered by an industrial capitalism that is so sped up there’s no time to re-establish connections or worthwhile frames of meaning—this is what Holmes means by fast-capitalism. Holmes points out, repeatedly, that integralism can be of the Right and of the Left. Lying along the same spectrum of political imagination, much of the Right and the Left’s underlying premises are the same. Both ends of the spectrum share the narrative that under late industrial, globalized capitalism, we are all languishing in an unbearable, hyper-individualized state of alienation. Such spiritual impoverishment demands a radical disavowal, and so the burning question of our times is how do we organize resistance against capitalism’s cultural corrosiveness? Now, where your local artisanal cheese-maker and your skinhead white supremacist part ways (I hope) is in the way they imagine possibilities for resistance. Your cheese-maker finds a way to reinvent tradition and create new forms of value (I’m not being glib: there’s a marvelous book of anthropological research, The Life of Cheese, about artisanal cheese-making in America that I promise will cheer you up). Your skinhead white supremacist, meanwhile, glowers at immigrants and threatens violence against a multicultural order that he feels has been forced upon him. Why?
This is where specific histories matter. The answer to this question in Britain is slightly different than in the US--the lasting consequences of American slavery can't be overstated--but there is a historical link between European and American experiences with class and race that helps us ask better questions. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when European nations were forming out of regional alliances, crumbling monarchies, and an aggressive push to consolidate national languages in schools, newspapers, and civil services, the states nominally associated with these nations were busy holding their colonial conquests around the globe. The European invention of modern national identity coincided with the rise of middle classes. The middle classes were produced by industrial capitalism and in conjunction with the scientific invention of a racial hierarchy used to justify a violent colonial order. Race, class, and nation emerged in tandem as categories of human belonging through the very same set of historical processes. Britain’s class distinctions (think how clear-cut every one’s social role was in Downton Abbey) were shored up by the logic of empire. Middle-class identity emerged in the midst of imperial anxieties about racial differences and what they might mean. Middle-class European-ness was by definition white. But then came industrial capitalism, new money, and modern warfare. Suddenly the chauffeur’s marrying the daughter of the house, and then…well, I stopped watching after that.
But in the early twentieth century the social order collapsed spectacularly, and with it a cultural framework for understanding class differences as a positive source of identity, solidarity, and reciprocal obligation. The old social order provided, for many people, a sense of meaning and belonging, even if they weren’t particularly well off within it. As global capitalism sped up in the twentieth century, the imperial legacy made itself felt. Former colonial subjects were invited into Europe as cheap labor, but instead of seeing these new ethnic minorities as potential partners in solidarity against the depredations of global capitalism, poor white Europeans came to see them as competition for increasingly scarce welfare benefits. Capitalism didn’t turn white working class racial attitudes into hateful bigotry on its own. Such bigotry requires an intuitively felt integralist theory of society coupled with resentments stoked by state policies that make people feel like they are losing something they had access to before, whether steady employment, public housing, or any kind of social security benefit.
Recall, for a moment, the famous quotation by Margaret Thatcher, who, in alliance with Ronald Reagan, oversaw a massive dismantling of the welfare state their predecessors had spent decades since World War Two building up: “There is no such thing as society.” How is that for a theory of society? There just isn’t one! She said, “there are only individuals and families.” With such a theory, there is no basis for claiming that your well-being is intertwined with the well-being of strangers. This is the theory undergirding the past thirty years of mass deregulation and privatization. Is there any more powerful evidence of the devastation a theory can cause?
So…yes, something something neoliberalism. I won’t argue with you. Yes, something something out of touch elites. You’re not wrong. Yes displacement, yes alienation, and yes the swelling fear and resentment of the newly poor, or the about-to-become newly poor, whose identities and entitlements have been undermined by the changes late industrial capitalism has wrought upon the social order everywhere.
But. There is something even more fundamental at stake, something that explains why, to paraphrase an internet stranger (sorry, stranger, I don’t remember who you are) commenting on a friend’s Facebook post: “plenty of people of color are impoverished and alienated by neoliberalism without losing their damn minds.”
Quite. We are in fact dealing with a white people thing, which is to say, a person-of-European-descent thing. To be white in America is to inherit Europe’s deeply conflicted cultural, philosophical, and political baggage. Fascism has deep roots in European thought, and — it has been argued more than once, by Hannah Arendt among others — is written into the DNA of modern liberal democracy, or will be as long as liberal democracies are rooted in a territorially bounded conception of nationhood. As long as the legitimacy of a state’s sovereignty depends upon the idea of the nation, an imagined community that feels real in our bones, as long as we peddle in words like ethnicity, culture, or belonging, as long as we feel like home has something to do with place, and home means self-determination, then our fascist potential is always there, lurking just under the surface.
This analysis is a hard sell in certain circles. The American Conservative interview with J.D.Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, made the digital rounds last month, prompting much discussion of whether Trump supporters are driven by racism or economic desperation. Vance’s overarching argument is perfectly reasonable: the Left needs to balance its structural analysis of inequality with respect for individual moral agency while the Right needs to balance its bootstrap hyper-individualism with an understanding of the systemic pressures that prevent people from exercising their agency. No argument there — although, to be fair, most of us in the academic Left already balance these perspectives. But this passage gives me pause:
My biggest fear with Trump is that, because of the failures of the Republican and Democratic elites, the bar for the white working class is too low. They’re willing to listen to Trump about rapist immigrants and banning all Muslims because other parts of his message are clearly legitimate. A lot of people think Trump is just the first to appeal to the racism and xenophobia that were already there, but I think he’s making the problem worse.
Here, Vance’s analysis slips into a weak determinism, which, for an ardent proponent of individual agency, is an odd (and oddly condescending) misattribution of moral responsibility. How is Trump “making the problem worse”? What is the actual mechanism here? Vance seems to be suggesting that it never would have occurred to Trump supporters to think racist thoughts before Trump suggested it at a rally. But this narrative that “dangerous immigrants are taking our jobs” is as old as our nation. What is Vance thinking? Holmes’s analysis can help us make sense of this confusion. The problem is how we think about causality. How do ideas affect economic conditions and how do economic conditions affect ideas? It is never either/or. When fast-capitalism destroys livelihoods, it also destroys material culture, the infrastructure that supports community solidarity; it destroys relationships, values, and psyches. But in that moment of collapse, we do not have to replace our feelings of social well-being with racism and bigotry. There is nothing inevitable about it. We draw on our cultural repertoires — our theories of self and society — when deciding how to respond to economic disaster. We select from our cultural repertoires and remix them. How and why this remixing happens in real time varies according to the individual. This is real human agency at work — sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously we remix elements of our cultural inheritances. White America’s cultural inheritance is European integralism. Vance doesn’t, at least in this interview, discern the cultural inheritance undergirding white racism and xenophobia. Perhaps Trump pours water on the seeds of fascism with his rhetoric, but his supporters carry the seeds with them. The question of our moral agency is tied to whether we hold on to these seeds or let them go.
The fascist rhetoric we hear shouted by Trump supporters should horrify us not because it is so far removed from what we consider normal reality, but because, if we are honest with ourselves, it is so intimate and familiar. This is the tricky part. The Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment are two sides of the same coin, or a Caduceus-like tangle, one snake inextricable from the other. The Enlightenment planted the Counter-Enlightenment seed, in its basic concepts. Here is the troubling proposition: we can’t get away from fascism. Its forms are too deeply embedded in the very idea of the nation, which is too embedded in our collective sense of self to get away from. It feels natural and real because it is inside of us, shaped by the rituals of social life that we have inherited from our parents.
The deep grammar of nation and race are embedded too far inside of all of us—the deep grammar of the free market and the rationally choosing individual actor embedded too deeply in those of us with power. I don’t imagine any of us knows how to wake up tomorrow morning without the identities we’ve lived in our entire lives.
So what options do we have in this nerve-wracking time?
I don’t know, but I would start with a theory of theories:
Power does not belong to the person holding a gun to your head; power belongs to the person giving legitimacy to the person holding a gun to your head. Power is the capacity to make the meanings that stick, the capacity to theorize, and persuade others of your theories. This isn’t just control over narratives, ideas, and choices. Power is the entire complex of human social arrangements that enable narrative-making, idea-making, and choice-making. It means the interlocking network of institutions and relationships and communications, all of which are accidents of history unfolding, in which we conduct our business. When the network is hierarchical and exclusionary, the available narratives, ideas, and choices are skewed. When the network is egalitarian and inclusive, then our narratives, ideas, and choices proliferate. It’s a feedback loop.
Power is the electrical current running through the network. This is why, as Michel Foucault observed when he realized the 1968 student revolution in Paris was failing, it doesn’t matter who the figurehead is. Well – it does matter, insomuch as the person you choose has the power to influence which meanings stick and which theories we believe. But replacing a figurehead can’t change things until we understand how change actually happens. What does it take to change the deep grammar of integralist politics that undergirds white nationalism? That undergirds any nationalism? It is certainly not by pretending that it is possible to be race-blind, which is usually code for “let’s pretend this violent history of racial oppression never happened.” If we buy Holmes’s analysis, then the racism of Trump’s core supporters isn’t going to disappear overnight, whether the people in charge of federal policy address their economic suffering or not. Fast-capitalism has done its damage — the frameworks of meaning and social solidarity are already corroded and warped. But theories remain, and so do questions. How do we theorize? With whom do we theorize? How do the theories we produce shape our country’s politics? We need to come up with some better theories, and we need to make our theorizing process explicit and inclusive; fascism will resurface, again and again, until we do.
Sarah teaches cultural anthropology and ethnographic writing at a university on the West Coast.