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What Constitutes the Specificity of Racism Today? What Makes Contemporary Re-Engagement with Race, Nation, Class Topical and Attractive?
Over the course of the 1980s, philosopher Étienne Balibar and historian Immanuel Wallerstein along with invited guests convened multiple seminars at the Maison des sciences de l’homme (MSH) in Paris, led by Fernand Braudel at the time. Conducted in the spirit of a renewal of Marxism, the historical constructions of their chosen central categories–”race”, “nation”, and ”class”–were to be re-evaluated in light of recent conjunctural developments. What implications did racism and ethnicisation carry for left-wing politics, as well as for a theoretical analysis of social change on a global scale?
Emerging from these discussions was the book Race, Nation, Class. Ambiguous Identities. First published in French in 1988, the series of dialogical essays would soon become a standard reference work in scholarship on racism, not least due to Balibar’s formulation of the notion of ”racism without races”. According to Balibar and Wallerstein’s shared diagnosis, racism posed one of the greatest challenges to emancipatory and solidary visions for the future.
One of the volume’s most consequential steps was to conduct a deeper investigation into a series of capitalism’s paradoxes and, in this way, develop an understanding of social organisation in such a system as always unstable. Theoretically, racism and nationalism ought to be problematic for the profit motive simply because they restrict potential exploitable labour by seeking to exclude or displace groups of people and ultimately make the destruction of human beings thinkable to begin with. In turn, states in the nation form appear problematic not only because they regulate, but sometimes even prevent capital flows. Should not political efforts be directed towards sweeping away these categories and systems? Precisely because they continue to reappear – almost as a kind of historical Wiedergänger or revenant–we require an explanation as to why they have not yet been abolished and what condition they find themselves in today.
The book’s dialogue between the two scholars opened up a space for new problematics and research approaches, adopting a double, sometimes confusing perspective: namely, a perspective in which the historical constructions not only discretely, but for the sake of determining the present necessarily became visible in oftentimes contradictory interaction. For both Balibar and Wallerstein, the question of racism was connected to the observation of a social formation which was continually reconstituting itself. It is this combination of sociological diagnosis, political engagement and theoretical work which characterised the project then and continues to make it attractive even today.
Particularly evident is the critique of Marxist discourses, which on the other hand constitute the foundation of their further development at the same time. Their reflections also exhibit influences from theories of anti-Semitism and those emerging from the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles, as well as theories from the civil rights movement, the migrants’ movement and the women’s movement. Feminist insights concerning sexism and the nation or transnational household structures also make an appearance. The ‘productive delocalisation’ of these influences–that is, their synthesis and combination with insights taken from an unorthodox Marxism–is what makes the book so powerful. Such a synthesis demands the acceptance of Marxist premises on the one hand while, on the other, calling for a modification of and partial opposition to, or at least a shift of emphasis in Marxist themes.
30 years after the book’s initial publication, we invite both theoreticians together with many international guests and the audience as a whole to systematically analyse the interrelation of the ambiguous categories of ”race”, ”nation”, ”class”, as well as gender prominently conceptualised in the book against the backdrop of discussions of current developments. Theses on racism from a global perspective have re-emerged in discussions by prominent authors for several years now, such as David Theo Goldberg, who diagnoses the current ”post-racial situation” as an updating and shifting of racializing categories, coining the term ”anthropo-racial”. Also of note are the further elaborations of some of Balibar’s ideas, in which he speaks of a proliferation of racist categories – and with it a simultaneous intensive and extensive expansion of racism. Characterising all of these approaches is the diagnosis that racism links up with poverty and precarisation in a new fashion. This implies, not least, a concept of class relations which has yet to receive attention in racism scholarship. To pose the question in heightened form, is it not only the national-social form of the state which has gone into crisis (as countless approaches already claim), but also the analysis of class relations and racism itself–hereby requiring us to clarify whether and how theoretical renewal could and must emerge?
These arguments are to be discussed here in the context of reconceptualised, temporary spaces of knowledge production organised along transdisciplinary and transnational lines. In a certain sense, the discussions at the MSH in Paris also represented such a space. The organisation of the seminars itself spoke of a ”praxis of theory”, understood as continuous engagement or dialogue between positions, initiating a process of mutual understanding through the common clarification of questions and terminologies. Then as now, the challenge for today is not only to pose the theoretical questions in new ways, but rather to integrate them into the horizon of a transformation of social formations and critical praxis. In methodological terms, this means stabilising well-known concepts only to the extent they can be simultaneously disoriented, in order to in this way initiate a process of thinking about other possibilities. This is precisely the aim of this conference–the Haus der Kulturen der Welt serves here as a surrogate location for future forms of knowledge production.
The heart of the conference is thus quite purposefully the question as to what a ”praxis of theory” could mean today, not only as reflection in the style of academic practice, but as an act of socio-political negotiation at a time in which ”dangerous conjunctures” come to the fore in the form of populist and authoritarian politics.
Manuela Bojadžijev, Katrin Klingan