Composition Notes: Deporting the Crisis

A dangerous string of episodes unfolds  in Germany – a political crisis that might leave us all in a worse place, rather soon.

On August 26, a Cuban-German male is stabbed and two asylum seekers from Iraq and Syria are arrested in the eastern city of Chemnitz. This sparks a set of right-wing mobilizations that flirt with the word “pogrom.” Videos are released where white Germans chase people of color across a busy byway. By the following weekend, tens of thousands take to the streets of Chemnitz in a show of solidarity with refugees, foreigners, and people of color more generally.

The Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, says on Thursday, 6 September, that migration is the “mother of all political problems” in Germany and tells the Rheinische Post that “many people now associate their social problems with the issue of migration.” He goes on to express doubts that anti-immigrant demonstrators are nazis and that in fact, had he been in Chemnitz, he probably would have attended the demonstrations.

The next day, Hans-Georg Maaßen, then head of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz publicly casts doubt that foreigners were in fact chased down and raises the possibility of ‘fake news’ against the Chemnitz right-wing demonstrators. 

The sequence of events around the Chemnitz demonstrations and the political attempt to generate a panic signals a significant and dangerous shift. This shift however is not unexpected. It forms part of a broader chain of events that have surrounded “post”-crisis Germany. At the center of these events stands the foreigner, the refugee, the asylum-seeker. It is the through the existence of this “outsider” that a “crisis” is even spoken of.

And crisis is certainly afoot. There exists a decay of infrastructures, services, and opportunities, as a politik of austerity deepens and precaritization is expanded. The good life in Germany is increasingly eaten up by a bare-life that is served up to greater and greater social segments and populations.

The consequences of neoliberalization are being meted out to society. But rather than speak of the disappearance of that good life – if it was ever there  – caused by neoliberalization, discourses are mobilized around an “outsider.” This meeting of racism and crisis is, in fact, nothing new. The french philosopher, Etienne Balibar calls that phenomenon “crisis racism.” And the object of crisis racism isn’t to protect an internal working-class against foreigners, but rather to beat down and decompose the working class as a whole.

Crisis Racism in the United Kingdom

Crisis racism, as much as crisis and racism themselves, have a long history in capitalism. But the economic crisis from 1970s through 1980s in the United Kingdom is telling of the way racism can function at a time of crisis in order to protect capitalism from the damage of its shortfalls.

The crisis in the 1970s marked the end of FordismThe decay and crisis of the Fordist historical bloc was the result of a number of interdependent factors, among them, the stagnation that defined the highly regulatory and bureaucratized nature of the compromise between big unions, big capital, and a big state; the internal and external colonizations upon which this rested; and the resulting struggles that pushed capital to spend more on expanding social programs and fighting Third World communism abroad.

But in Great Britain, the right-wing mobilized and conjured the image of the “barbarous outsider” as the reason crisis was unfolding. Their “outsiders” had been immigrants who came from the former colonies (largely South Asia and the Caribbean) during the period of the post-war economic boom. Similar to Germany during its  “Wirtschaftswunder,” they had been a much needed workforce. The tremendous economic growth gave them a breathing space within society to settle in without too much conflict.

But when, by the mid-1960s, that breathing space diminished, friction settled in. Fascist organizations like the League of Empire Loyalists had actively worked on the introduction of racism into, what Stuart Hall calls “street-corner politics.”

It was this latent racism that brewed within some segments of the working class that the parliamentary right wing mobilized when the actual crisis came, and not just to pick up the word from the street. The Tories saw in the crisis an opportunity to decompose a rising new left by ascribing the stagnant economy to the presence of outsiders.

With the mobilization of racism, they began to implement a fierce dose of austerity and an assault on organized labor. In a now famous sociological study co-authored by Stuart Hall,  called Policing the Crisis, the media sensationalization around “mugging”, for example, played a critical role in forging this political project. Despite the fact that “mugging” as a crime had at least been recorded since industrialization, it was being deployed as a new, insidious crime conducted by unknown swarms of black immigrant youth.

Of course, racism was not invented at the crisis. It was already there, well cultivated in the national culture of imperialist Britain. And while the empire was eroding, its afterlife remained intact through ideas about or around racialized populations that were anchored in institutional, managerial, and social practices that cemented divisions and difference, and were woven together in the fabric of cultural productions.

It was upon previously and continuously existing representation of black populations, cultivated across the apparatuses of British society and brewing at the grassroots through fascist formations, that the Tories conjured what Hall calls a “folk devil” in order to instigate a moral panic against “muggers” and “black crime.”

A number of techniques and practices were thus deployed and political technologies were mobilized to generate the consent to neoliberalize British society. The cutting edge of this counter-offensive came through the formation of a law-and-order response, best articulated by the incendiary discourse of conservative MP Enoch Powell. Hall demonstrates that Powell connected the mounting militancy of the student movement, the threat of the mob via mass demonstrations with the “‘combustible material’ of ‘another kind’” – the black immigrant population. Together, Powell and his circle deployed a discourse that pitched the protean armies of “disorder” against – in a tip of the hat to Nixon – a “silent majority” that was fearful of being called racist.

Hence, the road to austerity between 1968 and the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 was spearheaded by a law-and-order response against the moral panic. The deployment of the law as a repressive response became legitimized as a means to maintain “order” throughout the 1970s. As Hall observes, in this campaign against what Powell called the forces of “organised disorder and anarchist brainwashing,” a line of targets followed from minorities to students to the organized working itself was policed into line throughout neoliberalization. The batton, the CCTV, the informant – these tactics and tools had become acceptable to deploy against the workers at the point of production by first making them acceptable to deploy against muggers, hippies, and unruly minorities. That is, the road to policing black youth and to the brutal repression the Miners’ Strike of 1984 via the police was direct. The buildup of practices and discourses of law-and-order against the moral panic laid the bricks, so to speak.

The character of this neoliberalization is no doubt gendered and racialized, and dolled out through ranks and privileges. But there can be no doubt that its object (and result) was to decompose the strength of the working class a whole in order to produce more disciplined, productive society. A single sector had been called upon to “bear the brunt,” but the entire society suffered the long term consequences. This is the transition from Boomtown to Ghost Town that the multi-ethnic punk-Ska band The Specials captured in their iconic anthem, “Ghost Town”: “Government leaving the youth on the shelf / this place is coming like a ghost town / no job to be found in this country / can’t get on no more / the people getting angry.”  

Crisis Racism in Germany Today

At the current conjuncture, German society is invited to view the crisis through the lens of race. Similar to the UK, racism in the German social formation is not new, but the mobilization with the tool of racism has currently a new dynamik – and with for example the minister of the interior and other federal representatives a wide range of new actors.  

A portion of the roots of today’s crisis lies in the constitutionalization of West Germany that defined what is and what is not German. The constitutionalization of the German state was never meant to make Germany a country of immigrants. The fact that one must be “owner” of German blood in order to claim citizenship (and thus full rights) until the year 2000 is made further absurd in light of the genocide upon which this proof is demanded. This is the curious afterlife of nazism that ensures the purity of the Volk remained, even after its death. It is best reflected in the infamous statement of the black/yellow coalition contract from 1983 ‘Deutschland ist kein Einwanderungsland.’

No doubt, this policy informed subsequent attitudes toward immigration, beginning with the Guest Worker programs of the early 1960s that targeted particularly Turkish, Greek, and Italian workers.

Following the termination of the program, due to the oil crisis and the economic stagnation that ensued, the German state made different attempts to get rid of the once needed workers. The state barred new people from coming in or attempted to bribe the workers into leaving. It was the fact that the immigrant workers decided to “stay” (the political unrest in Turkey surely played a role in this) that the question of “integration” was put on the table – and with these debates the focus on Islam.

In Germany, the education system contributes largely to a process, that Fatima El-Tayeb recognizes to be an “ethnicization of labor”. Meaning: people within a certain society become “marked” as different, as “ethnic” and are forced to occupy inferior positions in the labor formation. That is, their difference is marked through the ways their labor is specifically commodified, the ways they are forced to perform certain work as outsiders.

German schools participate in this through the early division and segregation of students according to academic performance and career paths. Children with a ‘migration background’ who may not yet have a firm grasp of German-language or whose parents both have to work long house and might have less time and resources to support their children’s performance suffer disproportionately from this.

But, despite practices like this, geared to ensure that populations “from” Turkey were to stay outsiders, it was the supposed Islamic faith that was used to mark them as “incapable of integration.”  Brown bodies, mosques and women with hijabs, immigrant neighborhoods and immigrant foods, the cacophony of languages spoken on the streets – these are the badges, the markers of the racialized other.

All racisms are historically unique. The language of today’s racism is not spoken through the grammar of biology, but through the syntax of culture. It is not because of their biology that they cannot integrate (no one argues this). It is because of their culture – but we know this through the physical markers that rest through or on their body.

And it is here, that we see a decisive turn that set another critical portion of the foundations of today’s crisis racism. While the populations from Turkey are themselves no longer specifically targeted at the current conjuncture, the discourses that were assembled to mark them have jumped the containment fence, so to speak, and become generalized around “Middle Eastern” bodies.

Of course, this focuses just on the “Muslim” populations coming into Germany – the grammar around Blackness and Asianness as outsiders are themselves distinct and worth investigation.

But for the purposes of this argument, it was the grammars around “Islam” that set up the staging ground for the way the right-wing has come to explain the crisis.

And again, the economic crisis is very much real. But its roots lie in the neoliberalization of Germany: in the slow decay of the welfare state, of the flexibilization of labor, in the transformation of parliamentary parties from political to managerial formations. It is an induced scarcity that must be doled out to the masses. This process was initiated by Agenda 2010, authored by no Thatcher or Reagan, but by the SPD and the Greens. While one can say that due to that very fact, neoliberalization has been much “softer” in Germany, it still shows itself (as elsewhere) in the field of social reproduction.

But rather than talk about this, the right-wing has mobilized the “outsider” – asylum seekers in particular – as the culprit. Étienne Balibar observed that in times of crisis racism, the complaints around “immigrants” take on a particular character. They transform complaints of every social ‘problem’ into a problem because of the presence of immigrants – whether its due to decaying public services, diminishing quality of jobs, or a perceived decay of morality.

Balibar further observes that these complaints serve to spread the idea that “the reduction – if possible the ending – of immigration [. . .] would enable us to resolve our social problems.” The equation is such: the less these complaints are specific, the more the existence of “immigrants” are made responsible for them. The asylum-seeker is thus made into the “folk devil,” the cause for the moral panic of the current conjuncture in Germany.

What we see in Chemnitz and Kandel, then, is a formation of sensationalized panics, similar to those in Great Britain from the 60s through the 80s. It is in such a way, that the right-wing is mobilizing the signifier of the “barbarous outsider” that has infiltrated German society as the cause of these problems, rather than neoliberalization: the root problem of both German workers and incoming populations.


***Special note as of Nov, 5: Upon listening to Jeremy Gilbert’s podcast with Alex Williams entitled “Hegemony Now: Power in the Twenty-First Century (2), the concepts that they propose around Virtual Interests and Actualized Demands is quite useful in understanding this dynamic. That is, as Gilbert highlights, any individual may possess an array of interests that are not reducible any single, be it “economic”, gendered, or according to skin-privileges (white, black, POC, etc.) These are virtual and in suspension and exist. It is the matter of politics to actualize specific combinaitons of interests through the linking of demands there are not a given, but, as Stuart Hall would stress through the concept of articulation, the product of force and action, that are ultimately contingent on the ways their articulation are constantly renewed or maintained


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