Radical media, politics and culture.

Yann Moulier Boutang, “Color and History"

Color and History: From the Invention of the White Race to the Invention of White Multiculturalism*

Yann Moulier Boutang

Translated by Lowe Laclau

We in our “civilized,” white and exceedingly developed democracies, despite twenty years of crises know surges of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and racism very well. It is easy to view such phenomena as a general return to a barbarism of inter-ethnic conflict such as those that shake the Wild Cities of Enki Bilal (from the Berlin of the Femme Piège, to Beirut by way of Sarajevo, or the Africa of resistance in Rwanda). As if times had become as rough and merciless as the “new look” of commercial capitalism. However, even if we leave aside the all against all ethnic wars, this supposed new state of nature that makes the market Leviathan more desirable, we are forced to draw up a doubly worrying assessment. Since the latter half of the Eighties, in the parliamentary democracies, the extreme right reconstructed themselves significantly on an institutional scale (the PEN in France, Haider in Austria, Pauline Hanson in Australia). One voter in ten no longer hesitated to cast his or her vote for a type of political program that the defeat of Fascism and Nazism had previously relegated in the sphere of the unnamable, the unpronounceable, or the unrepresentable. The second assessment is the relative inefficiency of the calls for tolerance and of democratic multiculturalism to reduce explosions of intolerance to a marginal and normal [sic] level.

Why have democracies seen themselves re-grow these venomous flowers, why is it that the “communicational act” is only made use of to keep police blunders and racist murders from turning into riots? Why so much inertia, why is there so much complacence before discourses on closing up borders and standing firm, discourses that earn the traditional right as well as the left, much desired voters, as has been shown with the issues of immigration regulation and border security? The response from the workers movement, from classical Marxism, from good natured Republicans, and even radical Americans is simple: in a society of class inequality, within an economy dominated by capitalist exploitation and domination, real democracy cannot exist, nor can pacified interethnic relations. One needs only search for who profits from the crime. The disjointedness of the multitude gives force to the multinationals etc. There's nothing completely false in summing it up in this manner, but there's also nothing completely persuasive about it either. It lacks some of the critical links within its reasoning, and this cuts down all operational and political character, relegating it to a sphere of moral testimony. Two books in English with very different styles and objectives propose exploring another track and of truly beginning the debate on the classical question of nation, race and class: a scouring essay from Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in an Multicultural Society (hereout WN) and two ambitious volumes from Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race Vol. 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control (hereout IWR1) and Vol 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (hereout IWR2).

The work from Ghassan Hage allows a diagnosis of the present situation of racism as well as the failures of multiculturalism. The two volumes from Theodore Allen make it possible to embrace another question at the other end of the historical chain of immigration: that of the colonization of catholic Ireland from the 16th to the 19th century and the concomitant enslavement of Blacks in the Virginia plantations. What relation would be demanded between multiculturalism, slavery and colonization? It is the question of social control through intermediaries because the normal intermediaries had not yet been set in place. What happens when a failed or too radical a polarization erodes the space of traditional political mediations?Theodore Allen poses two questions and, in so doing, operates a truly novel link between the two in order to take up a third: 1) how is it that the splinter of slavery remains in the flesh of the United States of America—in other words, the world of liberation par excellence vis-à-vis absolutism, factory despotism, and the of diverse religious inquisitions? Why had the most egalitarian society of whites in terms of ideology and social mobility become that of the racial barrier and of an inequality concentrated essentially against the descendents of black slaves and Amerindian tribes? 2) The Irish example concentrates all the things one did better in Europe in terms of the economic exploitation of peasants, of the oppression of minorities through the prohibition of access to heritance, to landownership, furnishings, to education etc and all on the basis of an ethnic, religious membership. How is it that the Irish anomaly culminated in England at the same moment as absolutism was cut back, a century before in France? 3) These two questions combine in a third one even more frightening. How do the Irish and slave anomalies meet up, and overlap? How does the most intense period of immigration from Ireland (1800-1855), with its violent demonstrations of xenophobia by nativist WASP's who burned down the catholic churches of the Irish community, also be that where the newly arrived European white migrants desert the camp of the abolitionists and feed the rows of colonist Southerners like the O'Hara's of Gone with Wind? How, wonders Allen, do the Irishmen leaving from a plurisecular experience of racial, religious, economic and cultural oppression cross the sea to change to such a degree? How do the immigrants from the Cincinnati Repeal Association end up dissociating from the abolitionist cause of Irish independence and to reject Daniel O’Connell?

These questions open up onto another further along in time, like a multi-stage drawer. It is the same one ultimately as the question of the root of the American enigma: how did these people who were so badly treated at home (by the savage laws that controlled the poor through religious persecution) who formed the founding communities of the 13 American provinces from the pioneer Virginia, to New England to the Cape Cod of the Pilgrim's Progress, up to late Georgia, this incredible mixture of constitutive freedom and speculative plantations (tobacco, sugar cane, indigo as well as cotton) found in one century the roughest slave system of the continent, the first juridically racist State? The second volume of Allen turns to the colony of Virginia, like the first volume had pitilessly dissected the Irish case. Inside the Irish enigma, Allen had opened another drawer, that of Orangism and Ulster. How does the ground of Irish clans par excellence, those that resisted the conquest most obstinately, become this terrible stronghold which just leaves the inexpiable intra-community war between Catholics and Protestants? Is he making a fortuitous connection? Obviously not. Is it so astonishing that this first world power, the Empire that the sun never set upon a century ago, had controlled (“ruled”) what represents South Africa, allowing the establishment of apartheid, as it had forged the method of a “separate development” and a separate law in Ireland for a good four centuries. The apartheid of whites against other whites will have lasted longer than the racist Afrikaner system. This is perhaps because its racist substrate does not come to support itself on the convenient criteria of color (this marker that made it possible to prevent fugitive slaves from blending in with the population like an enlisted man in breach of contract), but had to instead over-divide the white body; and between the Catholics and Protestant Anglican Episcopalians or Scottish Presbyterians there was ultimately only the “Pope,” the name of the father. Familial hatreds, it is well known, are the worst.

Allen's book is at root a powerful variation on the story of the invention of the white minority [le petit Blanc]. It reframes what Ghassan Hage had explored in another British colony, contemporary Australia: the invention of the Nation as a color barrier. Next to the republican mythology of the invention of the Nation and the Rousseauan contract of equals, there is the other face of the constitution of the government of the masses: the invention of a white minority who make racism a State creation. The invention of a certain tradition of government, one that leads to the invention of a definitively pathological nation of American “nativists,” of xenophobes obsessed with purity, hostile to mixture, and to the bastardization of race by foreigners in their soft or “hard” versions. It is always of some use to take the issue at the level of the racist speech, but ultimately it is insufficient and generally too late. The Shoah does not really become intelligible in a manner that refuses the taming and banalization of its monstrous character until a Hillel rebuilds the legal stages which led to the construction of the camps, when one peels back the seemingly banal transformations of administrative authority. In such instances the pathology of the English State in Ireland, of the State of Colonists in the process of developing in Virginia reveals to us the latent nature of the State and of a sovereign people when it is set up in an indivisible, insoluble body.

It has been known for a long time that to divide to conquer was the traditional form of imperial domination, or that the worst enemies of the people recruit themselves in its center: put another way, proletarian or working racism was not a fiction. But to explain the existence of the white minority [petit Blanc] and to do so without resorting to the psychological explanation of an innate “racism” with regard to the Other or to the absence of an awakening to capitalist exploitation are two separate things. It is also been known that the primitive accumulation of capitalism was not fun. Primitive accumulation is, like a Cartesian creation, “continuous,” but this deserves further explanation. It is by weaving these two motifs together that Allen effective conjoins race, class and nation and puts an end in my opinion to the question of the gaping spaces between groups of class, ethnic communities and national society.

There comes a point in the history where the classes merge almost completely with the varying divisions of “race” and ethnic community, such that the nation absorbs the classes. With these two poles the social classes disappeared for the good and simple reason that what there was of interest in them in the analysis of Marx found themselves absorbed by communities (the social position to simultaneously and inseparably be able to produce and to produce power). The same applies to the appearance of the bourgeoisie; they interest the author of Capital only when they are found within the capitalist class. Otherwise Marx relegates it to academic sociology and there is no longer any reason to write his famously announced book on the social classes, no more than the one planned for the State. There are thus two situations where the analysis of the social classes explains to us only half of the problem (which is as good as saying nothing): that of the national question, from national minorities to that of the Sacred Union of 1914, and on the other hand, racism, anti-Semitism. It is not a matter of chance that the meeting of the two questions in the problematic of racism-vis-à-vis national minorities blatantly obscures the question of social classes.

Is it necessary to give up reading the mechanisms of exploitation as such? Allen is interesting precisely insofar as he holds the entire chain and the passage of the one in the other. He shows step by step, and it is the precision of the stages which makes the book of value; how the rich and the poor form classes, how all the colors of skin are formed from white to black, red and yellow, destroying their folds of class to become races, minorities. There is no chance if in so doing Allen is led to stress when returning in his second volume on England, that during primitive accumulation, it is the shortage of labor which is the rule and the abundance of manpower that it is the number one problem of social control. His description of the proletarianization of immigrants falls under the line of what Marx had portrayed at the end of book I of Capital, in the 8th chapter. With the case of Ireland as in that of Virginia, there is the same difference which changed everyone upon arrival: proletarianization functioned in the “traditional” terms of accumulation only with respect to two internal re-equilibrating mechanisms that helped to avoid an uncontrollable explosion: the massive emigration towards the New World, the line of flight that appears in the space of the Renaissance, and the creation of economic mechanisms of social ascension adapted to the dimension of a free multitude. However what happens when proletarianization either does not manage to be essential for over three centuries (Ireland until the start of the XVIIth century) or occurs without these two safety valves functioning (Virginia with the XVIIth century)? Where the population is set in place, Ireland, one uses all legal means available to prevent the access by the natives to land ownership, of cargo; they are stripped of the right to inherit, of the right to write up wills unless beforehand abjuring their faith.

They only overcome this after several centuries of discrimination with the English law in 1613 only to be radically excluded from it again as Catholics by Penal Laws from 1641 and 1704 (IWR1, p. 82). One was prohibited from teaching them to read and would be punished by death in the case of repeat offense for the teaching of a catholic Irishman. And as if that were not enough, the fields were confiscated and Scots were planted in the most rebellious part of England, what is currently Ulster, while the other provinces are left in a kind of state of Bantustan before its time. In Virginia a colonist (tenant) deserter would be punished by death after the near-destruction of the colony in 1619-22, but then thanks to the introduction of new colonists, bound-colonist [colonat] share-cropping was eliminated (IWR, 2, pp. 76-77), the majority of the newcomers were forced into constraining contracts (indentured servitude). But that is not enough because dependent white and black workers had early on joined the Redskins. Worse, a process of differentiation hollowed the ranks of colonist who were recipients of land after the rebellion of Bacon of 1676 (IWR 2. all chapter 11, pp. 163-222).

The result is the same in both cases. Failing to pay the masses in immediate economic currency (land, money) to create an intermediary class buffer, the ancestor of our famous middle class, they were paid in statute by privileges (patrimonial rights in the long run, since the children of the Protestants, of the Whites will undoubtedly have an education, jobs, civic rights better than those of the Catholics or Blacks). Proletarianization remains standing only by one legal over-investment, the Penal Laws in Ireland, the Race Laws in the New World. If the Orangists in Ulster could not keep its white and black enlisted as long as possible in this small colony at the edge of ruin, they wanted to thus prove to be political combinations as effective and as tough as the classical model of creating a middle class of smallholders as in New England. In Virginia, then later in all of the North American South, society didn't build reliance's upon distinctions of class but of race.

The red-haired and rebellious Celtic ethnic group, the fanatics Orangists, the ebony blacks and the hoods of Klu-Klux Klan are the white variation of power. It should be said that the interests of the white minority brought together perfectly the essential objectives of the great landowners of the plantations and the colonial States (to fix labor to the land, to be stocked in workers, even if this latter should not be free, to collect regular and easy to produce revenue). The diagram richly documented by Allen perfectly forms part of a general theory of the deviation of proletarianization that I developed. Like me, it very vigorously disputes the argument of the reserve army which the anti-abolitionists presented to the new Irish immigrants: if the Negros are released, they will create for you competition on the labor market (IWR, 1, pp.165, 191-192) by showing that it is not through the devalorization of the other (its weak wage claims, its absence of organization or tradition of fight) which brings back the fear of competition, but through the fear of being marginalized, to lose a privileged statute. Ghassan Hage does not illustrate anything different starting from the new white fear of the last wave of Asian immigration in Australia. Finally the question put by Allen returns from itself on the ethnicization or the current “racialisation” of the relations of class: everywhere where a derogatory legal statute appears (one can extend the reasoning to the relations of kind in work) prejudicial to the freedom to circulate, to the free access to the ensemble of common rights of ownership, it is necessary to wonder not so much who profits from the crime (that is a self-evident truth), nor which new line of division is being dug (purely descriptive work) but which new dynamics of the multitude is being aimed for, to control. In our modern societies, having abolished various apartheids, slaveries and purifying nationalisms of race, and although they are still very close as the appalling shred of what was Yugoslavia shows, has the white minority disappeared? Is the United States in another place today?

A good reading of Ghassan Hage shows that nothing is less sure. He shows how the excluders of yesterday, now dominate projecting their exclusion by dreaming of the purity of the Nation; how the dominators of present exorcise their past ethnocides by posing the national unit of a tolerant minority collecting nation like some affluent antique dealer of ornaments or “natural” reserves. Ghassan Hage in his alert and provocative book frontally attacks multiculturalism. This concept is attached from now on in the name of Charles Taylor as inevitably as those of Habermas and of Rawls are with pluralist representative democracy. Ghassan Hage does not tackle the theoretical theses of multiculturalism as such completely while carefully marking them (WN, p. 137); he approaches it in fact as it becomes an ideology of State, in that of the Australian State. He locates the same matrix behind the speeches that protect the tutelary power of the English preaching tolerance or those more contrite speeches which publicly excused the injustices formerly practiced against the Aboriginals. The whites made the history of Australia; they behaved badly. The newcomers of today (primarily non or non-European white) must adopt the new values of tolerance. Economic repair must compensate for the old damage. These are obviously speeches which continue to place the white point of view ay the center of the table. The minorities speak of law, equality, but more fundamentally still, the right to be other than the colors of the white power. Read Allen and Hage. That of which they both discuss is in front of us, in the Europe of the suburbs, the Europe of the minorities and the Europe of ethnic purification.

On Ghassan Hage (1998) White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Sydney: Pluto Press.

Theodore W. Allen (1994 et 1997) The Invention of the White Race, Vol. 1, Racial Oppression and Social Control and Vol. 2, The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. London: Verso.