Maddalena Gretel Cammelli and Jonathan Friedman: PC Worlds: Political Correctness and Rising Elites at the End of Hegemony

Maddalena Gretel Cammelli interviews Jonathan Friedman on his new book, PC Worlds. A version of this interview has also been published in Italian on Il Lavoro Culturale.

MGC: In your text, you describe “a moral regime” called Political Correctness (PC) that would be characterized by a “moralization” of social relations, and by a diffused “shame culture” that you consider symptomatic as a “mechanism of the protection of identities which does not recognize any rational argumentation.”

Substantially, in your argument, PC is a phenomenon peculiar to this historical moment, a specific communicative frame, a symptom of the contemporary hegemonic crisis, and thus an element of the process of the establishment and maintenance of new global elites.

Now, your argument is totally embedded in your anthropology of global systems.

In order to make this more accessible to people who are not familiar with it, I would like to ask you to give a summary explanation of what you mean with the “anthropology of global systems.” What characterizes this approach to the analysis of social phenomena?

JF: The anthropology of global systems began in the mid 1970s with a growing recognition that the then dominant model of social explanation, in which the only relevant factors were internal to the society, was wrong. This mistaken idea was based on evolutionary anthropology, functionalism, and structural functionalism, which assumed that society is a self-organizing and self-reproducing organism that could be understood in terms of its own internal elements. Even Marxism foundered on such assumptions. The contrary hypothesis that was developed, first by Kajsa Ekholm Friedman, was that all societies are embedded in larger systems of relations so that there is always a crucial distinction between the social order and the larger social system of which it is a part. This was further developed in a model of social reproduction in which the cycles of reproduction were historically larger than that of the society itself. The evolutionary record was reconsidered: so-called primitive societies that were used to illustrate a Stone Age existence prior to civilization were argued to be by and large products of the marginalization occurring in imperial systems. Where more isolated societies could be found the question was how did they become isolated, and this often had to do with larger scale predatory relations that drove populations into safer zones, or even the collapse of larger systems. Archaeology has since confirmed much of this reconceptualizing of the older neo-evolutionary schema. Much of the Paleolithic and Neolithic was constituted by regional systems of trade and warfare, as well as cycles of expansion and collapse/decline. The formation of early civilization was the formation of larger imperial orders. Mesopotamia did not develop its great civilization solely as the result of its own agricultural surplus. The stone for its temples as well as the tin and copper for its bronze were all imported. And it is increasingly clear today that there was even capitalism, often quite elaborate, in these early civilizations. The nature of such systems with the advent of the first civilizations is strikingly similar to those of the modern world. Commercial structures, slavery, wages, capital accumulation, and class structures are commonplace and even dominant in world history. A crucial aspect of this is that such systems have a specific dynamic of expansion and contraction that follow cyclical patterns that include accumulation of wealth in centers followed by the movement out of wealth into other, often peripheral zones, the decline of the centers, and the rise of new centers financed by the older centers via the export of wealth (capital). This longue durée of civilizational cycles is accompanied by major sociocultural transformations.

MGC: At the foundation of systemic analysis, there is a reflection concerning the cycles of history. What do you mean by “hegemonic decline”? Who exercises hegemony over whom? And how do you define the word “hegemony” (for instance, in relationship to the well-known definition of Gramsci)?

JF: Hegemony refers in this analysis to political economic centrality and power over a larger region that is organized into center/periphery and semi-periphery. The latter are not fixed categories but emergent forms, e.g., peripheries are the result of peripheralization, a complex of unequal exchange and colonial exploitation. This is not the hegemony of class but of region and is thus not similar to Gramsci’s notion. Hegemony can take the form of the exploitation of the resources of a larger region and the economic subjection of that region. It can also combine the economic with the political control of that larger region. There are a great many variations here, from formal empire to informal imperial structures. Hegemonic decline refers to the loss of hegemony that in global systemic terms results from the decentralization of the accumulation of wealth and eventually power in relation to the larger system, leading to increasing competition, crisis, violence, and ultimately the shift to another or other emergent hegemonic centers. The current shift of hegemony from Western Europe and the US to East and South Asia is an example of this phenomenon.

MGC: In the book, you use often the word “ideological inversion.” What do you mean?

JF: Ideological inversion refers to the process in which the content of ideology is transformed into what might be considered to be its opposite. It is used to account for a series of shifts of the following type: nationalism was considered to be progressive in the ’50s and ’60s and is now considered to be reactionary. I refer to a series of terms that have been replaced by their opposites in the following way:

1968 1998
The national The postnational
The local The global
Collective Individual
Social(ist) Liberal
Homogenous Heterogenous
Monocultural Multicultural
Equality (sameness) Hierarchy (difference)

This shift is one in which the notion of the progressive has changed substantially. The contemporary left stands for the global, the individual—for liberalism and multiculturalism and even the postnational, i.e., a world which in fact is closer to the ideology of neoliberalism. A major shift here is the shift from class to culture as the heart of struggle. The working class, or what is left of it, is now considered to be reactionary and racist and it is the new bourgeoisie, the “latte left,” that bears the revolutionary struggle. But of course there is no revolutionary struggle; the latte left is the defender of the status quo.

MGC: Now: what then is the relationship between the contemporary phase of hegemonic decline and the spread of the communicative frame of Political Correctness?

JF: PC as I have often insisted upon is a general phenomenon in which social control is achieved by using associative thinking to divide the world into that which can and which cannot be said. It emerges in periods of instability in which there is a fear of saying the wrong thing which is often associated with a sense of shame. Shaming is the primary instrument of PC. It can be used in many situations and is not in itself about a particular political issue, although I have been accused of precisely that. That is, it is not in itself about multiculturalism versus fascism as some are inclined to think. On the contrary, it can be used in quite contrary situations. As a contemporary phenomenon, I have linked it to a situation of hegemonic decline which itself is a period in which there is a rising cosmopolitan elite in a situation of increasing class polarization. The latter attempts to enforce its power, which is fragile: because not really established and accepted—by invoking an image of the world that supports their anti- or postnational liberal identity; by a need to attack those who are losing their social security and complaining about both the direction of society and the fact that they are totally ignored; by categorizing them as representatives of evil, i.e., racism, nationalism, fascism. By transforming cosmopolitan identity into a general ideology, they create an entire language for describing the world that needs to be enforced in a situation where not all people agree, to say the least. PC is a way of avoiding open rational argument by morally declassifying the enemy. The main property of PC is its rampant associationism. This is a form of communication that is typical in situations in which the individual self is considerably weakened, where narcissism becomes dominant, so that the subject is increasingly dependent on what is called the “gaze of the other” in order to survive psychologically. It is in such situations that control by means of associationism can work.

MGC: Your book provoked a debate in Italy since it has been published in a moment when the political actuality of your analysis of PC is stark. Meanwhile, the critical alternatives that you offer are thin. Your vision has itself sometimes been labeled as feeding a form of “fascism and racism.” Now, the public debate in Italy, as you know, has seen a proliferation of questions related to the meaning of fascism today and to the actuality of concrete forms of racism.

JF: The book deals precisely with the way in which accusations of fascism have proliferated and the way, for example, a critical stance on immigration politics can be recategorized as either racism or fascism—or even Nazism. So let me be absolutely clear about this failure of thought. To be critical of the current situation of mass immigration has nothing to do with fascism as such; otherwise, blacks in the US who have been critical of immigration for years are fascists. Fascism is a more sophisticated ideology than that. I try in the book to analyze the actual processes by which this categorization occurs. If I am critical to immigration policy, then I am critical to immigrants, and I am therefore a racist, since immigrants come from other cultures, and if fascists are racists, then racists are also fascists. In this categorization of the world, liberals are by definition progressive. This is what has led, on the other side, to Fox News calling the New York Times a communist newspaper, and [former US President Barack] Obama and [George] Soros are celebrated as “progressive,” even revolutionary. It is interesting to consider what has happened when mild forms of PC have failed. Specifically, it is even interesting to explore the arguments behind Russian influence in national elections, where [US President Donald] Trump won over Hilary Clinton, the collusion with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, etc. The assumptions there are that companies such as Cambridge Analytica can change the course of election by spreading fake news, that people are totally manipulated by media. Thus, populism is nothing but the manipulation of people by the forces of evil whose aim is to topple democracy. While it is not necessary to discuss the way the US financed [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin in Russia and has always attempted to use propaganda to change the direction of politics in other countries, it should be obvious that the hysteria over Trump’s victory from the Democratic Party has all the makings of a magical form of PC gone wild.

MGC: Is there a relationship between the emergence and the spread of PC and the contemporary spread of actual racism, both in rhetoric and practice? Can you say that the diffusion and the use of a specific “moral regime” has triggered the irritability around the concrete difficulties of living in a multicultural society in decline?

JF: In my earlier work on the relation between declining hegemony, crises, migration, and ethnicization, I discussed the links between what I referred to as double polarization and the phenomena of increasing ethnic conflict and “racism.” Double polarization refers to the simultaneous fragmentation of the national that was dependent on a strong modernist identity and ideology that disintegrated in the ’80s leading to the emergence of subnational cultural identities, i.e., a horizontal polarization, and a vertical polarization as a segment of the population became upwardly mobile and identified increasingly with cosmopolitan liberalism, while the declining working and lower classes became increasingly nationalist and populist. Racism, I would claim, is quite generalized in a period of fragmentation and is not reducible to the older phenomenon of white or even Aryan supremacy, even if the new elites make such claims. The current fear of populism is more like a resurrection of the notion of les classes dangereuses, now defined as the “antidemocratic” masses.

MGC: What is the relationship between the new elite, PC, and the phenomenon of mass migration? In your research, you make a comparative analysis between the contemporary hegemonic crisis with other examples of hegemonic crisis in the history of humanity: in which way can the historical comparison enrich the analysis?

JF: This is a big question. There are many examples of declining hegemony and mass migration in history. The relation between the two is that in periods of declining hegemony, there is a general disintegration of hierarchical imperial orders leading to a proliferation of competing powers in a fragmenting world, increasing conflict, warfare, economic crisis, and thus migration (i.e., flight or abandonment). Consider what was often referred to as barbarian invasions in the ancient world from the final crisis of the Bronze Age in the 12th century BC, to the Hellenistic crises of the last centuries before the rise of the Roman hegemony, and the decline of the Roman Empire itself. In all of these, the so-called barbarians were formerly integrated populations of the “peripheries” who were affected in major ways by the decline of imperial order, often moving on weakened imperial centers.

MGC: You have been called a fascist and a racist, as happened to your wife, Kajsa Ekholm-Friedman. I want you to explain this clearly: how do you place yourself? For instance, in your book you narrate that Anders Breivik cited your work. What do you think about this? Do we need to be “fascist” in order to criticize the “left” and the management of migration and immigration policies?

JF: I am not surprised by your question, since this is exactly what PC is all about, and it expresses very well the nature of the ideological crisis faced by a new elite and those who identify with it. Breivik cited me a couple of times primarily in relation to the nature of immigration today, as I recall (in the language of PC worlds, if I am cited by Breivik this must make me a fascist). The formation, especially with respect to Islamic immigration, of a diasporic culture opposed to the Western values system, is not my invention. I cite, not least, the work of Bassem Tibi, who has been writing about this issue for several decades with respect to Germany. The formation of parallel societies within the nation-state is not simply the first phase of integration. Integration occurs in periods of growth. In periods of decline migration, leads to the formation of segregated populations, and in the case of Muslims, who are a large percentage of immigrants in Europe, it enables alternative ideologies and cultural forms, creating conditions for conflict. Islam, if not all versions of it, is well suited to this situation given its world historical self-definition in relation to the West. This should not be shocking to anyone. There are no Buddhist terrorists in Europe, nor Hindu terrorists, nor Latino terrorists. The situation is complex, of course, but there are clear tendencies involved. Some years ago (2001), I wrote an article on Islamic terrorism in which I criticized the left-liberal position common after 9/11 that it was all our fault. [Noam] Chomsky and in Scandinavia especially Johan Galtung claimed that Al-Qaeda represented the reaction of the world’s poor against Western power. This was basically to say that Islamists were merely extensions of our own will, i.e., that they had no intentionality of their own, a typical colonial understanding of the “other.” My argument was that there were autonomous strategies involved in many Muslim communities, which is not, of course, to say that all Muslims think the same way. All Germans were not Nazis, and not all Italians were fascists. The sociological structures concern the way in which certain ideologies are implemented and can become dominant, not least because they resonate with a powerful cultural schema. This is simply the way cultural identity works. To call it Islamophobia or fascism is to say simply “I don’t like that” or “I find it dangerous” which is to say “I would rather not discuss it.” It is more important to find out what is actually happening rather than being surprised by what should have been obvious. The notion that immigration is inherently positive is simply absurd, for those who would have rather stayed at home as well for the host populations. At least it should be worth discussing critically.

As I take up in the book, referred to above, being against immigration is neither left nor right, as evidenced by polls of blacks in the US and of the explicit position of, for example, the French communist party in the 1970s. The fact that the Swedish “father” of social democracy was an admirer of Mussolini should not seem strange for anyone who knows about the history of socialism. The critique of PC is not a solution to problems but an opening to confronting such problems with our eyes open (see Furedi 2018).

Maddalena Gretel Cammelli is a Research Fellow at the University of Bologna. She works on fascism and neofascist political culture in contemporary Italy. Her latest publication is “Fascism as a style of life: Community life and violence in a neofascist movement in Italy” in Focaal – Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology (2017).


Friedman, Jonathan. 2001. “Impaired empire.” Anthropological Quarterly 75 (1): 95–104.

Furedi, Frank. 2018. “Why the people must be sovereign.” Spiked, 2 March.

Cite as: Cammelli, Maddalena Gretel. 2018. “PC Worlds: Political Correctness and Rising Elites at the End of Hegemony.” FocaalBlog, 17 May.