“Racism: A Passion from Above”


In these tense times of increasingly explicit racism, most recently against the Roma in France, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière has made a very trenchant intervention. Speaking at a public meeting on "Why the Roma?" in Montreuil on 11 September, Rancière launched a precise attack on what he calls "left-wing intellectual racism" that tries to describe racism as simply a "passion of the popular classes" that the state can either seek or fail to channel or block, thereby occluding the active role of the state itself in creating, reproducing and intensifying racist divisions.

Unfortunately, this talk has not yet been translated, but should be circulated immediately. Rancière argues:

[That] this so-called critique [of the state supposedly 'exploiting', in an opportunistic and electoralist fashion, racist passions from below] renews with the presupposition that racism is a popular passion, a frightened and irrational reaction of backward sections of the population that are unable to adapt to the new mobile and cosmopolitan world. The state is accused of failing in its duty [manquer à son principe] by being indulgent to such layers. But in this way, this critique is confirmed in its position representing rationality in the face of popular irrationality.

But, Rancière argues, this is an old game:

A game which consists in opposing to popular passions the universalistic logic of the rational state, namely in giving a certificate of anti-racism to the racist state policies. It is time to turn the argument round and underline the complicity between the 'rationality' of the state which carries out these measures and the convenient other—the conniving adversary—which it sets up as a bogeyman, namely the popular passions. In fact, it is not the state which is acting under the pressure of popular racism and in reaction to the so-called 'populist' passions of the extreme Right. Rather it is the raison d'état which is maintaining this other to which it confers the imaginary management of its real legislation.

Having made a number of sharp points against the law outlawing the burqa, Rancière concludes thus:

a lot of energy has been spent against certain figure of racism—that which is incarnated by the Front National—and against a certain idea of this racism as an expression  of the 'white trash' or 'rednecks' (petits blancs) which represent the backward layers of society. A good deal of this energy has been recuperated to construct the legitimacy of a new form of racism: the racism of the state and 'left-wing' intellectual racism. It is perhaps time to reorient our thinking and struggles against a practice of stigmatisation, precarisation and exclusion that today constitute a racism from above: a logic of the state and a passion of the intelligentsia.

Visit Mediapart to read the talk in full.

Finally, perhaps this is a better time than ever to return to the important book by Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class.

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