Heiko Henkel, Sindre Bangstad, and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen: The politics of affect: Anthropological perspectives on the rise of far-right and right-wing populism in the West

This is the first part of a panel held during the 2017 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. The second part is freely available to all readers in the most recent issue of Focaal here.

Over the past decade, the dramatic ascendance of ethno-nationalist and right-wing populist movements and projects has been reshaping the European and North American political landscape. While such movements and projects have played crucial roles in European politics since the emergence of the nation-state—most dramatically so with the rise and fall of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s—they have hitherto remained mostly at the margins of established national and international politics in post–World War II Euro-America. A string of political events, most notably the election of Donald Trump and his turbulent presidency, the Brexit referendum that is about to propel the United Kingdom out of the EU, and the electoral successes (if not always victories) of decidedly nationalist and far-right populist parties across Europe, however, have underlined the viability and dynamism of ethno-nationalism, right-wing populism, and far-right political projects in Europe and the United United. Crucially, it has also become clear that many of these projects and movements both represent and amplify a passionate rejection of what is often described as the failings of the “liberal elite.”

The two panels we held at the 2017 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, under the title “The Politics of Affect: Anthropological Perspectives on the Rise of the Far Right and Right-wing Populism in Europe and the USA” invited colleagues whose work sheds new light on the various social forms these political projects take and the causes that motivate their protagonists and followers. As it turned out, the conversational format of the roundtable was particularly conducive to bringing out in an economical format both the different analytical approaches our colleagues brought to their cases and to show points of convergence, complementarity, and tension. The following is an edited transcript of the first of the two roundtable events. The second roundtable event is simultaneously published in the forum of Focaal 83.

— Heiko Henkel, Sindre Bangstad, and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen

Heiko Henkel (University of Copenhagen): The ascent of Donald Trump to the US presidency seemed qualitatively different from that of other Republican election victories in living memory. It was not only that Trump had been particularly awful and incompetent as a candidate. The Trump victory had seemed to erase, with one swipe, the comforting narrative of American exceptionalism. The narrative, in other words, that, however problematic its history and however enormous such problems as social inequality, race relations, and hyper-consumerism were, American society was fundamentally different from Europe in that it had decisively turned its back on that European malaise of the ethnic nation-state—a state that, however liberal in appearance, was in the end unable to shake off the racial underpinnings of a society rooted in the imaginary of an ethnic Volk.

Now, the United States had elected a president who had swapped the globalist vision of the United States with an explicit “America First” approach, who openly pandered to white supremacists, who barely disguised his disdain for nonwhite Americans, and who with the flamboyance of an old-world fascist demonized religious minorities. A president who both reveled in the persona of an unscrupulous businessman and the persona of the brash but charismatic leader that would avenge the common man and stick it to the corrupt liberal elites. Suddenly, with the arrival of right-wing populism in the White House, the United States turned out not to be so “exceptional” after all.

From Europe, things looked a little different last November, albeit equally bleak. From Europe, President-Elect Trump looked, if anything more bizarre and monstrous. But this time around, it was, at least for the more thoughtful observers, difficult to dismiss Trump as one of those uniquely American monstrosities (remember George W. Bush, Sarah Palin). Rather, Trump looked eerily similar to that cast of characters that over the past decade has risen to prominence—and in many instances, to power—across Europe on a right-wing populist-nativist ticket.

Sindre Bangstad and I wanted to address four aspects:

(1) We wanted to gather colleagues who could bring a wide range of perspectives and national cases into play to ensure that no one or two cases were rendered “exemplary by default.” For this reason, we ended up with a sequence of two roundtables.

(2) We also wanted to do some stocktaking of “what we know”—because we think we actually know quite a lot already about the rise of right-wing populism. Ten years or so ago, Andre Gingrich and Marcus Banks (2006) set us off to a good start when they framed the rise of various ethno-national movements in Europe as neo-nationalism, emphasizing the continuities of the current movements with their well-established predecessors. Today, many of the themes they discuss are even more prominent than they were back then. But new elements have gained importance: the escalation of the Muslim question across Europe, the refugee crisis, the flourishing of neoliberalism into an entrenched administrative common sense—and then, quite suddenly, the growing sense that neoliberalism as a form of governance is all but bankrupt. So—one question to our panelists is how neo-nationalism has been faring recently in your respective countries of expertise, and how much this neo-nationalism is woven together with right-wing populism and the far right.

(3) While most right-wing populist movements have “the nation” as their horizon, often at the center of these projects are more questions such as who matters in the nation, whose voices are heard, whose sensibilities are recognized, and whose ways of life promoted, rather than the nation itself. In other words, it is the question of who—among the heterogeneous citizens and residents of contemporary Euro-American societies—“the people” really are or, rather, who the people are that should matter. Who, in other words, should be the legitimate sovereign over the state? Much of this struggle, we think, is fought out on the terrain we have come to think of as “a politics of affect”—that is, the generation and mobilization of strong feelings of sympathy and aversion, of felicity and infelicity, belonging, marginality, and otherness. These affective formations often cut across established political alliances. Once mobilized and extended far enough, these affective formations help construe affective publics (Khalvashi 2015; see also Papacharissi 2014) and prepare the ground for new alliances and new distinctions.

Let me give you a brief example from Denmark: Denmark—compared to its neighbors Germany and Sweden, has a fairly small scene of bona fide far-right activists. But, with the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party—DF) it has a by now well-established right-wing populist party. In the 2015 national elections, it became the second-largest party, with 21 percent of the vote. So far, the DF has not been part of a government—but it has increasingly managed to become “respectable” in the sense that it is now simply part of the Danish party landscape and public debate. In fact, the Social Democrats are now rumored to aim for a coalition with the DF to unseat the governing liberal-conservative government. But the real power of the DF should perhaps be measured not purely in terms of votes and numbers of government ministers but rather in its ability to mobilize and redefine the affective map of Danish society. I give you just one example that I hope indicates what I mean by that:

Three or four years ago, two colleagues of mine, Henning Bech and Mehmet Necef, published Er danskerne racister? Invandrerforskningens problemer [Are the Danes racists? The problems with immigration research]. Early on in the book, Bech and Necef strongly denounce the claim that “Danes are racists.” For them, this claim, which they attribute to “immigration research,” is obviously a malicious slandering of “the Danes”—obvious because, given that, Bech and Necef tell us, Muslims (who stand in for “immigrants” more generally here) are not “a race,” so there can be no racism. And it is malicious, because the supposed accusation of racism they detect in the immigration research they examine suggests there is something morally at fault with established Danish society and its relationship to immigrants.[1] The very suggestion of “racism”—in fact, of any problematization of majority- minority relations that does not place the blame squarely on the minority—is for them indicative of a hysterical criticism that cannot grasp the right of the established majority, the folk, to define a collective way of life. The Danes, the authors tell us, are not racist: they are just worried (bekymret) (2012: 11).

Now, Bech and Necef are not easily labeled as right-wing populists, let alone as far-right activists. They are liberal academics, Necef himself with an immigration background. But they are part of an influential current in Danish public debate that has, over the past fifteen years, circled the wagons around an established Danish self-understanding. They perform a by now well-known double take: they accuse critics of the current Danish right-wing turn of being “racists”—an accusation that is deeply injuring to most Danes. Bech and Necef then construct a scenario where one can be either “with the Danes” or “against the Danes”which, by definition, puts one outside the folk as a kind of traitor and in the same boat as the ungrateful Muslims and immigrants, who, obviously, are also not part of the folk.

We’re here in the middle of a “politics of affect,” of strategically evoking collective indignation, of blaming unruly minorities, and those who speak up for them, of not “truly” belonging to the people. With Bech and Necef, we’re far beyond what we usually see as the constituency of right-wing populism (as it is embodied, for instance, in the DF) But the authors, like many other mainstream commentators, evoke and mobilize an affective formation that envelopes Danes across the many social, political, and even, to some extent, ethnic divides of Danish society—and at the same time uses the “mock accusation” of racism as a affective litmus test to define the proper boundaries of the Danish people. Examples such as Bech and Necef’s book raise at least two sets of questions—and with these, I want to hand it over to our roundtable.

First, what can we say about the continuities, the “chains of equivalences,” in Ernesto Laclau’s (2005) terms, that right-wing populism establishes between established mainstream liberal society and the Far Right, and thus redraws the boundaries of who does and who doesn’t count as proper member of “the people”? And second, like many commentators, and perhaps not entirely without justification, Bech and Necef argue we should read the hostile attitudes of many Danes to minorities and newcomers as “worries” rather than “racism.” But how exactly are these “worries” related to those well-established currents of Euro-American political thought and practice that have time and again led to the discrimination of—and sometimes protracted violence against—these minorities? Where do we locate the driving force of right-wing populism? Do we locate them at the losing margins of neoliberal modernization (i.e., with the much-cited “white working class” or the long-established cultural milieus now threatened by globalization and in-migration)? Or in the established heartlands of certain European (and, as it turns out, North American) political traditions? Or even in the very foundations of the liberal nation-state itself?

Andre Gingrich (University of Vienna): To an increasing extent, the present is characterized by the growing contradiction, as I see it, between the expansion of the market economy and late capitalism on the global level, and various forms of democratic life that are basically still organized along national or regional lines and therefore generate a growing political sense of being pushed around, being helpless. In economic terms, the expansion of capitalism provides an increasing pressure toward social decline, inferiority, and downward social mobility. These tendencies have expanded from initial phases of the 1980s and 1990s to a situation today where neo-nationalist or right-wing populist phenomena have themselves globalized to an extent that the danger of war and violent conflicts has become more eminent than before. That danger is unequally expanding around the globe. Swiss or Danish neo-nationalists wouldn’t easily promote war by their countries, but they would continue confronting minorities, as well as distant countries perceived as opponents on multilateral levels. Especially from current European perspectives, however, with Putin on one side and Trump on the other, you do watch carefully what the next crisis will bring about.

This comes along with a certain necessity, because neo-nationalism basically needs constant campaigning and constant mobilization to put people, who would otherwise lose trust in their self-appointed leaderships, into a constant state of alert, of emotional mobilization, of certain forms of fanaticism, et cetera. So, things have changed in the 10 years since we came out with a first analysis (Gingrich and Banks 2006) that primarily focused on small European countries as a primary source of the emergence of neo-nationalist phenomena under postcolonial and post–Cold War conditions. Today, we are facing a somewhat different global situation, and that’s one of the important transformations to be observed and analyzed. At the same time, I also think that, internally, the early neo-nationalists were far more careful in promising they are good democrats, whereas today one sees an increasingly strong tendency to play around with democratic rules in a way that, I think, Douglas Holmes (2016) quite rightly has addressed as potentially fascist. An element of protofascism is growing in some of these movements and may become a danger to democratic institutions and rights.

If we agree on that, we also may agree on the basic ideological elements of most right-wing populists, whether they operate in Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, India, or the United States: they tend to operate with a tripartite ideological apparatus that tends to present the “endangered nation” as being sandwiched between threatening forces from above and below, to convey an atmosphere of fear and possible weakness if “we” don’t do something about it. With these and related premises, I think the question that really becomes relevant is what anthropologists are able to contribute to such trajectories of analysis. That is a point where we must distinguish between activism and scholarship to a certain extent, because I think the extra expertise of anthropology is valuable and should be brought in with its full weight, as much as it is worth. The point I am suggesting is that we might focus on two elements. One is the ideological force that allows various populist movements to exercise a kind of emotional glue cutting across social classes and helping neo-nationalist leaders mobilize for popular identification with their leadership.

Here, I think anthropology’s conceptual practice and inventory tools and terms are still somewhat poor. I am also cautious about the notion of “affect” in this context, because this usually relates to situational and fairly abrupt emotions. By contrast, what we are dealing with here mostly is not just situational emotions on a mass scale but emotions that are more enduring. These medium or long-term emotional conditions relate to shared forms of resignation, collective forms of feeling humiliated, commonly experienced forms of paranoia, anger, and fury. Joint emotional conditions of this kind, operating as social glue, are not yet well understood by anthropologists (or psychologists, for that matter) because too often they primarily have been dealing only with individual conditions of emotions. There is important work to be done in this direction. Second, some notion of “culture” remains useful along this road. Right-wing populism, as I have indicated before, requires constant campaigning that involves a recurrent ideological loop around traditional values. These traditional values of course may look very different in India, North America, or Scandinavia. In its basic ideological movements, however, neo-nationalism constantly revitalizes “traditional values” for present-day purposes. This is where the past becomes activated for present-day purposes in ways that we also must study and criticize to fight back against the ideological and emotional glue that keeps neo-nationalism active.

Mayanthi Fernando (University of California, Santa Cruz): Right-wing populism is not a topic I know as well as others at this roundtable, so I offer some very speculative thoughts and provocations. The election of Trump forced secular liberals—including most anthropologists—to confront the fact that politics is not rational, abstract, or secular but rather passional, libidinal, deeply embodied, even apocalyptic. I am not convinced this is a Right/Left issue or that “good” progressive politics is rational and “bad” regressive politics is passional. I am also not convinced liberal politics has not always already been driven by emotion and affect. The fantasy of politics as rational (with passion off-loaded, of course, onto women in that early division of public and private) is just that: a fantasy. Writing about popular sovereignty, which anchors democracies in the United States and Europe, the cultural historian Brian Connolly (2016) argues sovereignty is premised on domination and subjection, no longer to a king but to “the people.” At the heart of liberal democracy, then, lies a central paradox: becoming a free citizen, and a constitutive part of the people, requires an act of subjection. Thus, a tension between freedom and subjection haunts most democratic republics. Connolly then goes to Freud, which I imagine most of us will find unsettling because we do not like to think of ourselves as libidinal beings. But hear me out.

Connolly argues the conflation of democracy and popular sovereignty in the United States has long rested on the repression of this desire for submission to a sovereign Father, the one who can make the law without having to follow it (for sovereignty, of course, is the capacity to declare exceptions to the law in times of crisis [Schmitt 1985]). Connolly (2016) writes: “The desire for an all-powerful sovereign who declares himself the permanent exception to all law by claiming we are in permanent crisis has long been the repressed of the democratic psyche. Donald Trump, in all his grotesquerie, is the return of the repressed.” After all, Trump’s appeal is not rational but somewhere beyond the conscious. It is libidinal. This is not to say the discourse of white supremacy played no role; it was highly effective. But the class, gender, and race resentment—the ressentiment, really—we are seeing in the United State and Europe, and the affective charge of the language of crisis (and of the attendant need to reassert white, male, and/or national dominance), must be understood at least in part through this psychoanalytic lens. In other words, while the content of affect is important to get at, so is the form or structure of affect that underpins liberal democracy.

This underlying desire for a sovereign Father in a time of crisis (or at least a time felt as crisis) also explains the meteoric rise of the left-wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the 2017 French presidential elections (this is why I am not convinced libidinal politics works only on the Right). Mélenchon was the candidate who perhaps best embodied the sovereign Father whom Connolly invokes. I am not talking about Mélenchon’s policies so much as the gendered affect—the libidinal charge—of his appeal, the way he presented himself and was read as a Savior, a Protector in a time of crisis, of anomie, of the social disintegration produced by globalization and what Douglas Holmes (2000) called fast-capitalism. We are used to these figures on the Right, but the affect here seems quite similar. Mélenchon may not be a strongman in the Putin sense, but he is certainly a Strong Man, a man unbowed (insoumis), a man who wants to remake France in his image, as a nation unbowed: la France Insoumise, the name of his party.

I keep saying “a man” because gender seems vital to any analysis of populism. There is a much be said about Trump’s appeal lying precisely in his possession and domination of women and in his active, boastful resistance to Hillary Clinton, the quintessential castrating woman. But I want to turn to Marine Le Pen instead, to work through the gendered politics not only of affect but also of presidential politics and popular sovereignty more generally. Le Pen is, of course, a woman, but she has performed a certain phallic masculinity required of Gaullist presidential politics in France, and perhaps of all presidential politics. She has actively stripped herself of what could be perceived as feminine qualities—her male partner and children are never in the picture; she is usually photographed surrounded by her male National Front colleagues, or alone—and cultivated a kind of gruff beauf (good old boy) demeanor, right down to her deep voice. This is unsurprising, given that femininity has long been a massive liability for female politicians. But gender is a tightrope in politics, and Le Pen’s performance in the final debate between her and Emmanuel Macron was particularly interesting because her attempt to perform masculinity failed spectacularly. The moderators began by asking her about her state of mind right before the election. Instead of answering the question, she launched into a brutal, dismissive attack on Macron and then continued throughout the debate to interrupt him, make snide comments, and smile sarcastically throughout. She was, I think, going for the same kind of insouciance that worked so well for Mélenchon in the first round of debates. But Mélenchon is not only better on his feet; he also has going for him the fact that he is actually a man. (Trump, incidentally, did the same thing to his opponents.) Le Pen was trying to perform a role she cannot ever fully inhabit, and her performance was read as vulgar and disrespectful. It was read for what it was—drag—and she was pilloried for it. Macron is lucky that in the age of desire for a sovereign Father, the contender in front of him was female. But in her performative failure, Le Pen reveals we need to think about gender as much as we do about race and class in thinking through the affects and affective charge of populism.

I want to end by asking how progressives might act amid all this nonrational, libidinal energy that, if Connolly is right, underpins not just populism but also popular sovereignty. Rather than trying to restore rationality to politics (as if that is even possible), might we also appeal explicitly to the affective and the visceral? And if the classic modus operandi of anthropology is to “take seriously” radically different ways of worlding the world, might we look to premodern and nonsecular political traditions for new ways to do politics? I am not sure what those political traditions might be, or how we might inhabit them, but rather than simply engage our nonliberal and nonsecular interlocutors on a conceptual level—seeing them as offering different ways to think about the world—might we also ask whether those different ways of seeing the world could lead to different ways of living it, and changing it? That is, might “taking seriously” include taking up radically different political visions to do politics differently ourselves, in a way that embraces rather than rejects the affective, irrational, libidinal, embodied, and apocalyptic?

Margit Feischmidt (Institute for Minority Studies, Budapest): I would like to contribute three very simple statements to this panel. The first actually comes from the title of this conference—Anthropology Matters—and a question from the initiators of this roundtable: How can anthropology contribute to understanding of the rise of the Far Right? My first simple answer is by working on a local level, so ethnography concentrating on certain localities. This is also because this is what I have done in previous years. I have worked in two different villages in Hungary. In one, the rise of the Far Right was promoted by mobilization against the Roma. The second one is a village where the mayor and the party in power mobilized against Muslims and refugees in general. And certainly this can be justified because the support of the Far Right tends to be heavily concentrated in specific localities. Local case studies not only offer enlightening empirical material but also allow specific combinations of various social, cultural, and analytical approaches.

My second statement will be that my empirical findings from Hungary tend to support theories underlining the importance of social grievances, according to which the support of the Far Right is likely to be particularly strong among social groups threatened by status loss and dispossession. The key claim here is that feelings of aggravation seen as being caused by disappointing comparison with one’s own past or that of the social reference groups tend to make people more anxious, insecure, and resentful and that these feelings may be channeled into support of antiestablishment sentiments but especially for those sentiments that blame certain out-groups for the problems of the in-group perceived as “the people.” Chris Hann (2016) uses the metaphor of “overheated underdogs” to describe the social groups that have been pushed into a desperate situation. But all Eastern European countries have experienced social strains, and the peripherization of East and Central European countries within the EU is shared between these countries. Accordingly, social anxiety and disappointment lie behind the sympathy for any support of politics that operate with European skepticism, nationalism, and the treatment of strangers as scapegoats at the same time. These are present also in the two Hungarian villages where I worked. Nevertheless, besides underscoring the structural formats of deep-seated political transformations, I would also emphasize the significance of cultural transformations: first, the appearance of new discourses on ethno-national past and belonging.

My third claim would be that empirical evidences have shown that the success of the new talk of radicalizing the nation was in the past largely dependent on the successful redefinition of certain categories of people in the Hungarian Roma and immigrants as menaces. Far-right political actors were those who achieved this cobbling together by systematically connecting perceptions of communal decline to the rise of the “gypsy” or migrant communality. Our analysis has shown that the rearticulation of Roma and the migrants as presenting the main threat prepared the ground for the rise of far-right and neo-national discourses all over Hungary. In my work in a Hungarian village close to the Serbian border, I started with listening to everyday narratives about encounters with people on the move. Personal accounts and associations with early memories became almost completely absent in everyday discourses. The accounts collected demonstrate that fear became a dominant reaction and anxiety became even more powerful as national and international media and politics noticed local events.

The latter made me aware of links between local practices and national or international political stakes, and links between the same local practices and the role of the media. By presenting himself as the restorer of security, the far-right mayor of this village took a leading role. He creates and controls the hegemony of a xeno-racist discourse in a village that excels from culturalization of the perceived menace to racialization and dehumanization of refugees. Meanwhile, the same mayor became the vice president of the Hungarian, then far-right Jobbik party on the national level and a main actor of the international far-right scene. Consequently, the village I am studying became an important scene of the national and international media. If I started my intervention by claiming local investigations of the Far Right are what anthropologists can offer to the field, I would close it by emphasizing that local enquiries should consider national and international influences, while investigations of everyday discourses should seriously consider the effect of media and wider politics.

Damani Partridge (University of Michigan): “White supremacy,” one might argue, is not the dark underside of the liberal nation-state but rather built into its very foundations. We must note that it is both difficult and dangerous to think the liberal nation-state outside this history. If Trump is claiming President Andrew Jackson as a hero, then we must not forget Jackson was also directly responsible for genocide. What does it mean, in this respect, to call him a hero now? People, particularly in Europe and the United States, are calling on national sovereignty to protect them from the market and the migrant. Whiteness unifies transnationally, while nationalists call on sovereignty to secure local specificity. Tactics get shared across borders. What seems like a fringe sentiment, “white power,” is actually quite mainstream.

What seems new about this contemporary upsurge of global populisms is the global concurrence of political mobilization. This is not, however, an elite movement. It is also after the mainstream recognition of the participation in genocide (particularly in Europe and especially in Germany) and the scientific consensus that race is a construction. Of course, one of the symptoms of the rearticulation of white supremacy is the rolling back of “race as a construction” and the recognition of the participation in genocide (e.g., Poland). I am not sure what culture has to do with this. There seem to be cultural claims that would lead the analyst in the wrong direction if they were taken at face value as “cultural claims.” Often, they are, in fact, racial claims and fears of social transformation based on the presence of the immigrant, or those perceived as such, even if they were born in the country.

We need to think about conscious versus subconscious “white supremacy.” At least at the beginning of the Trump presidency, journalists and others have been using “white supremacy” as a shaming tactic, as if the people who forthrightly believe in it would be ashamed. If anything, Trump’s election should prove that shame has gone out of fashion (at least among his supporters and other supporters of explicit white supremacy). The response to the #Me Too movement is a case in point. What the attempts at shaming, however, hide is that white supremacy (and the entitlement linked to rape culture) was with us all along, even within liberalism and universal citizenship. In Two Treatises on Government, John Locke notes “sovereignty and power of Life and Death naturally belong’d to the Husband” (([1689] 1993: 322). Writing about Locke’s Two Treatises, Susan Buck-Morss (2009: 28) first quotes Locke and then comments:

“Slavery is so vile and miserable an Estate of Man, and so directly opposite to the generous Temper and Courage of our Nation; that “tis hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for’t.”

But Locke’s outrage against the “Chains for all Mankind” was not a protest against the enslavement of black Africans on the New World plantations, least of all in the colonies that were British. Rather, slavery was a metaphor for legal tyranny, as it was used generally in British parliamentary debates on constitutional theory. A shareholder in the Royal African Company involved in American colonial policy in Carolina, Locke “clearly regarded Negro slavery a justifiable institution.”

Furthermore, the claims about the “white working class” (as the voice of the forgotten), as the voice those Trump somehow captured, uses Trump’s analysis to assess social reality. Of course, this analysis is flawed. It also serves the interests of Trump, his followers, and his fellow ideologues. In fact, as others have pointed out, the “working class” are not only “white.” Those described as the working class are often without work now or the prospect of work in the future. We need to reexamine our categories. Hillary Clinton tried to appeal to the “white working class” in her run 2008 against Barack Obama and lost. In academic discussions, for some time, I have been struck by the use of the “working class” as an argument that always appears (from the Left and the Right) in discussions about affirmative action. “But what about the working class?” the argument usually begins. “Race is constructed, but class is real,” the (often implicit) argument follows. Class, here, is thought to be “white,” and race to be “black.”

In his analysis, David Roediger (1991) points to the “wages of whiteness.” Here, whiteness (and the privilege attached to the expectations of what it means to be white) lead to voting and other forms of political (and analytical) action against one’s own interest, at least if one is really working class or out of work altogether. Of course, the articulation of a sovereign protector is more complex in a context in which one will not simply be protected because one is obviously white or normatively European. The reliance on sovereignty to protect “white” people is, to some extent, particularly in Europe, an argument against the ravages of global capitalism, but it is more akin to a national-socialist solution than to a universal one. To get beyond the persistent invocation of “white supremacy,” we need to develop a more complex analysis of “blackness” (both historically and now) and how it is more and more frequently articulated as a kind of universal. Its political articulation might, in other words, be the best response to the contemporary condition.

Agnieszka Pasieka (University of Vienna): My project deals with the networks of several European youth far-right organizations. At the moment, I am looking closely at the links between Polish, Italian, and Hungarian far-right movements. I am especially interested in various forms of cooperation, in how they learn from each other in exchange of ideas and practices, and, consequently, in the very different processes of translations that occur between those movements—in how they translate concerns, but also solutions to those concerns. The movements I study are not political parties, and they claim not to inspire to become parties; what they emphasize, instead, is the relevance of activities “close to home”—food collection for the poor, visits in orphanages and animal shelters, reparation of the playground, environmental causes.

Studying these activities from a transnational perspective is a fascinating exercise, because it enables us to identify a variety of tensions that transnational pro-national activism entails, for instance, a tension between solidarity with one’s nation and with the transnational community of likeminded people. Moreover, it permits to inquire—something Margit just hinted toward—to what extent chosen forms of activism are a response to local needs (and/or perceived benefits, likewise related to local needs) and to what extent they correspond with a broader far-right ideology. And, of course, conducting transnational research permits us to look for comparisons and differences, and identify what studied movements have in common.

That is something I would like to elaborate on briefly. The movements in Poland, Hungary, and Italy share very similar discourses: they are anti-Semitic, they are strongly anti-communist, they are defenders of “traditional” family values, and all of them refer very explicitly to the interwar era. But they are very selective in that. They will not refer to any fascist organization; they will refer to those fascist organizations that correspond with what they consider most relevant. For Polish and Italian organizations, a crucial point of reference is the Romanian, fascist Iron Guard,[2] an organization that it is relatively “safe” to refer to because it was “untainted” by the Holocaust but first because it was carrying out a lot of grassroots works (e.g., in the Romanian countryside), similar to those the activists inspire to carry out nowadays. Referring to the similarities and differences, I would also like to emphasize that research of the Far Right enables us to challenge some of the—still quite dominant— assumptions regarding the Eastern/Western European divergence. I often find many more similarities among, say, Polish and Italian groups than among Polish and Serbian ones. Across Europe, far-right movements are similar in terms of demographics and in what kind of activists they actually attract. Most activists I interact with are educated (very often with university education), middle-class people.

So, let me refer back to one of Heiko’s initial questions about what their grievances are, and what the driving forces are. We are asking whether we are faced here with the problem of the white working class as victims of neoliberalism. In light of my own research experience, economic factors play only a small part here. These are not the movements of the (economically) “left behind,” even though they claim to speak for such people. These movements gather the discontented from every walk of life, but those who predominate in its ranks are educated, middle-class men, who can afford to be active.

The second aspect I would like to emphasize is the question of culture, for the groups I have studied also claim to speak in defense of “their culture,” with culture being understood as Kultur, in terms of an ethno-national-cultural identity. What is very interesting here is that when I inquire about the reasons for the preoccupation with “culture,” Hungarian activists reply: “Actually, it is thanks to gypsies that we understood why culture matters so much.” In Italy, they would say, “it is thanks to Senegalese immigrants that we have understood it.” In short, the claim is: “We don’t like gypsies, we don’t like Turkish immigrants, but we admire them, because they are so strong; they are strong, because their culture is so important for them, as it should be for us Hungarians, for us Italians,” and so on. They thus admit that a driving force of their activism was the observation of “cultural others” in their own countries.

And to the last point—whether the phenomena we are observing are old or new—I already gestured toward the fact that the movements I study do refer to fascist organizations from the interwar era, but I would like to go back to the variety of activities that they organize and that I find so important: summer camps, food collection, and many others forms of community work. Even though we might think of some of those activities as “typically left,” as forms of “left-wing” civic engagement, these are actually the activities that characterized a variety of fascist movements in the twenty-first century. This is yet another argument in favor of a comparative view, but it should also lead us to ask, where is the Left nowadays? And those activists who say they act simply because they wish to be present and engaged in their communities—why did they opy for this side of the political spectrum?

And a very last point on why anthropology matters here, and what we can do. I think, of course, anthropology matters tremendously, but I believe one of the ways in which we can better understand this appeal, this affect, the very question of why the Far Right is gaining more and more popularity among very, very different population strata, is by moving beyond anthropology of politics, political anthropology, and economic anthropology and inquiring more into, and thinking more about, anthropological contributions on morality and ethics. If we want to understand them—despite disagreeing with them—as anthropologists we have an obligation to try to understand their notion of morality and their notion of what is good, their understandings of who deserves and who belongs. And that is, I think, the only way forward.

Paul Mepschen (University of Amsterdam): I would here like to offer two unfinished comments on the affective infrastructure of populism and its invocation of the specter of “ordinary people.” First, the Trump election in 2016 has once again centered attention on the metaphorical figure of the “ordinary person,” which plays a key role at the current moment in history—not only in the United States but also especially in Europe. In my view, the intersection of class and race is central to understanding this figure. Based on ethnographic research in the Netherlands, I criticize the unthinking way the symbolic figure of “(ordinary) people” is mobilized in both populist discourse and in the criticism of this discourse. I will argue for a more dynamic and non-substantialist approach.

After local elections in March 2011, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte reflected on the far-reaching transformation of Dutch political discourse in recent decades. In response to the electoral victory of his party, he said, “We are going to give this beautiful country back to the Dutch, because that is our project.” The premier’s words echoed his earlier promise, made when he presented his cabinet in October 2010, to “give the country back to hardworking Dutchmen.” This statement exemplifies the normalization of a peculiar political discourse in the Netherlands—an exclusionary politics that rests on the construction and imagination of a notion of “the people,” as in the rhetorical figure of the “hardworking Dutchman,” for instance. The “people” referred to in these discourses, we should emphasize, form not a shapeless demos but rather a particular ethnos or natio (Farris 2017): the people called into being are the “autochthonous” (Geschiere 2009).

The figure of the “hardworking, ordinary Dutch person” also plays a central role in the rhetoric of the far-right populist Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid). The leader of this nationalist and anti-immigration political formation, Geert Wilders, has argued for years that he represents “hardworking Dutch people” like “Henk and Ingrid” (sometimes “Henk and Anja”). Wilders argues: “We choose in favor of the people who don’t have it handed to them . . . Not for the elite, but for Henk and Ingrid.” Boundaries are drawn, in Wilders’s discourse, between “ordinary people” and allegedly pluralist elites but also between white “autochthones” and people of migrant background. “Henk and Ingrid,” Wilders once famously said, “have to pay for Ahmed and Fatima. They have a right to a safer Netherlands that is more Dutch.” Class and cultural boundaries merge in a discourse that gives form and shape to a right-wing populist political paradigm and social persona: the ordinary person, who is “originally” Dutch and who is presumed to be and construed as white.

As Francisco Panizza argues, populism rests on the construction and imagination of a notion of “the people.” It is, at core, “an anti-status quo discourse that simplifies the political space by symbolically dividing society between ‘the people’ (as the underdog) and its ‘other’” (2005: 3). The form populist politics takes depends on the ways in which the antagonistic relationship between “the people” and “the other” are defined in a particular time and place (4). That is, to understand populism, we must analyze the construction and everyday appropriation of populist rhetoric and imaginaries. Populism cannot be understood by taking the existence of “the people” as a prime political actor or group as an a priori fact, but by developing a nonessentialist approach that focuses on people’s practical activity and self-understanding. “The people” and “the other” are political and social constructs. In other words, they have no ultimate meaning or fixed reality: they are empty signifiers (Farris 2017; Panizza 2005). At the same time, a nonessentialist approach cannot mean we can ignore the tangible aspects of inequalities and power differences that have to do with the ways people are socially situated and shape an infrastructure for exclusionary views and politics. One of the challenges, then, is to flesh out the articulation of symbolic boundaries—“conceptual distinctions made by social actors to categorize objects, people, practices, and even time and space” and social boundaries—“objectified forms of social differences manifested in unequal access to and unequal distribution of resources (material and nonmaterial) and social opportunities” (Lamont and Molnar 2002: 168). In other words, what needs examination is the extent to which the symbolic boundaries that people draw are grounded in and resonate with “real,” material and political inequalities in terms of access to resources, democratic participation, and decision-making. In my work, I have argued that an ethnographic approach is one of the ways in which an examination of these disjunctures can be made more tangible and intelligible (Mepschen 2016a, 2018).

In the Netherlands, the construction of “the people” occurs within a particular context of political and social transformation—the culturalization of citizenship and the shift toward a post-Fordist society. That is, Dutch populism rests on a culturalized and ethnicized construction of “ordinary people” as “autochthonous” and white. Populism is grounded not only in the construction of an antagonistic relation between the people and the establishment but also in the exclusion of culturalized others from the very category of the people. While many “autochthonous” residents feel they are rendered anachronistic—temporally and spatially displaced—right-wing, autochthonous populism can be said to hold the promise of recentering and demarginalizing precisely those white working- and middle-class residents who see themselves as having become increasingly peripheral. The racism of the Far Right offers an idiom in which to speak about one’s sense of displacement.

In my work, I have ethnographically examined the case of Amsterdam New West, where I carried out ethnographic research in 2010 and 2011 (e.g., Mepschen 2016a, 2016b, 2018). My focus was on the plans for the large-scale restructuring of the district, zooming in on one particular neighborhood—the Louis Couperusbuurt in Slotermeer—that was going to be demolished and “regenerated.” Many residents would have to leave the neighborhood and make room for new, more affluent residents: the dreamed-of consumer-citizens of the ideal Amsterdam future. I mapped the resistance to these plans, charting how class and race intersected in what I called a “discourse of displacement.” As I have argued, urban regeneration and shifting housing policies signal a wider practice and public culture of neoliberal reform, gentrification, and creative-class politics that render “old” working-class spaces like Slotermeer anachronistic: spatially and temporally out of place. Many New West residents engaged with the notion, circulating widely in debates about the future of the district, that New West was “no longer in tune with the times.” Whereas some residents protested, for instance, by organizing a now highly successful neighborhood museum celebrating the modernist, garden-city design of the district, others developed a defensive, emotional response. “What they mean,” I heard several residents argue, “is that we are no longer in tune with the times.”

Remarks like this denote a sense of temporal displacement and an abiding attachment of people to a time now passed—a passing exemplified by the withering of the Amsterdam public housing tradition. As Andrea Muehlebach and Nitzan Shoshan (2012: 329) suggest, reflecting on the Fordist-Keynesian compact established in Europe until the late 1980s: “Housing . . . appeared as an index of a peculiar affective relationship that citizens cultivated with the nation-state that often took on an elaborate and extensive caregiver role.” That is, neoliberal urban development indicates an even more fundamental transformation of the relationship between citizens, the nation-state, and government, in which certain “groups” of citizens feel abandoned and bereft. There is of course reason for some wonderment here, which has recently started to be articulated in the Dutch public sphere. These allegedly disenfranchised autochthons have arguably been at the center of political discourse for almost two decades now. So, why do they cling to their sense of displacement and abandonment? And why are we constantly bombarded with the allegedly real, raw, and problematically authenticated stories of poor, working- and middle-class whites who feel they lack voice and representation?

The answers to these questions can be found only by taking a close look at the everyday, material realities of the worlds in which people live—at the interface, in other words, between the symbolic boundaries people construct and “real” social boundaries they encounter. Such a move shifts the focus to affect: to diffused sensitivities or moods such as grief, humiliation, and bitterness. The challenge is to investigate the structural reasons for people’s sense of abandonment or disenfranchisement: reasons that have to do with the structural transformation of their worlds in an era of ascending neoliberalism and with the post-political, post-democratic character of urban decision-making in the contemporary Netherlands.

I argue the analysis of the transformation of urban and housing policies, and especially the withering of the public housing tradition, sheds light on the affective consequences of neoliberal transformations. The discourse of displacement, which I see as an important building block of political populism right and left, must be understood not simply as a form of popular, apolitical ressentiment but rather in political terms; it should be recognized as a diffused discourse of resistance that engages with the neoliberal transformation of Dutch society, which is characterized by an increasing distrust in public authorities and institutions. Moreover, if the public housing tradition has historically represented practices of valuation—“matrices of worth” based on morality, solidarity, and other attributes unrelated to income and socioeconomic status alone (Hall and Lamont 2013: 10)—then the decline of public housing represents the increasing normalization of neoliberal horizons of possibility that “elevate market criteria of worth.” As Peter Hall and Michèle Lamont have recently pointed out, the impact of neoliberalism—at the level of personal and social valuation and (self-)worth, human subjectivity, and the meaning of status and citizenship—should not be underestimated. Neoliberalism goes hand in hand with increasing material insecurity, as well as “heightened status anxieties.” It is this anxiety that is mobilized—and culturalized and racialized—by ethno-political entrepreneurs of the Far Right.


Sindre Bangstad: As organizers of this panel, we have not—and quite deliberately so—asked panelists to define either right-wing populism or the Far Right, or sought a consensual platform in terms of what kind of factors our panelists would emphasize, and that would always lead a great deal of discussion around problems of definition. So, I am going to throw in a couple of questions I would like the panel to respond to.

First of all, on the very question of how to define right-wing populism in relation to the Far Right and to mainstream political formations, could any of you volunteer to respond to that—how would we, or how should we, define right-wing populism for anthropological purposes? And second, what relationship does it stand in toward the Far Right, more generally, and the mainstream liberal and conservative political formations?

Damani Partridge: In my introduction, I was asking to what extent the definition of right-wing populism is the right question, and to what extent we should be asking about white supremacy as part of mainstream politics, and even as the foundation of liberal democracy, in those terms. We would not just hold the margins of society responsible for white supremacy?

Andre Gingrich: I wanted to second Damani’s and Mayanthi’s skepticism during their talks about “left” and “right” in these contexts. I think this precisely relates to the same reasons why Marcus Banks and I came up with the idea that what we are actually discussing is a particular populist bottom-up—or “quasi bottom-up”—form of nationalism in new global contexts, that is, why neo-nationalism is to an extent contrasting against earlier forms of nationalism. It is not sufficient to merely focus on any nationalism’s “agenda” in an ideological way. With neo-nationalism, what is at the core is its emotionalizing definition of the “we” as the endangered nation in its very specific hierarchical forms. Its ideological mobilization always responds to some form of racism and xenophobia. This is especially important in a situation where the distinctions between “right” and “left” are not so clear as one used to believe and do not help us in advancing our anthropological analyses.

Paul Mepschen: Just a very small comment in relation to the question of “left-” and “right”-wing populism: I mean, I can see the point Andre is making, which I think is very important, that even the Far Left, or what used to be called the Far Left, are influenced by the dominant discourse about legal immigration as problematic, et cetera, and they seem to move in that direction. So, that is problematic. But at the same time, I think, a kind of left populism might also be an answer to our current predicaments. Precisely for the reasons Mayanthi pointed to, we need a kind of leftist politics that is able to politicize the social anxiety I tried to discuss earlier in a different, progressive way. When it comes to the definition of right-wing populism, I think it is not only antiestablishment but also based on the political construction of a notion of the people that is deeply exclusionary: it is racialized and culturalized. So, it excludes certain people from the category of “the people.” And now we see that what Tariq Ali (2005) has referred to as the “extreme center”—including free-market liberals like the Dutch prime minister and his party—taking over these right-wing populists’ agendas. I mean, that is why I started my talk with the prime minister and not with the Far Right.

Mayanthi Fernando: I have two responses to all this. First, I just finished reading Assembly, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2017). I don’t know how many of you have read it, but it’s basically a call for a kind of left populism. One difficulty I had when reading the book is, in part, that it requires a certain abstraction of particularity to make a global left movement. But if one takes seriously Anna Tsing’s (2006) argument about capitalism as precisely a translation across difference, as the abstraction of particularity in translation across difference, then I would like to think of a way to do leftist politics in a way that does not universalize, in a way that does not abstract difference. And I don’t know what that looks like. But I am suspicious of the kind of Mélenchon populism precisely for that reason.

Second, when listening to all my fellow presenters, one question that came up for me was: how do we think historically about the relationship between neoliberalism (and the particularity of a neoliberal moment) and a much older white supremacy we are talking about as well? It seems to me there is a way in which neoliberalism becomes a condition of possibility for the rise of what we are calling right-wing populism. But what we also see in that right-wing populism is actually a much older form of white supremacy and white dominance. So, in a way, what neoliberalism does is put into question the previously unquestioned sense of dominance among certain white people. But, again, white supremacy is an old structure. So my question—and it is a question to which I really do not have an answer—is: is there a contradiction between the impetus to take very seriously the contemporaneity of neoliberalism in this historical moment, and another argument to take very seriously the enduring structural condition of white dominance that is the condition of possibility of the West?

Andre Gingrich: I think one must be more careful with universalizing certain notions of racism. In the German-speaking countries and in parts of Scandinavia, race and the notion of racism in the respective local languages are closely associated with legal charges of committing a crime, like being a rapist or a murderer. This has to do with history during the time of Nazism. This is one reason why the term does not mean exactly the same thing as in the English-speaking world. Talking in a global sense about racism as if it were self-understood in every corner of the world may thus turn into a superficial exercise, if one is not sufficiently clear (just think a moment about meanings of la raza in Spanish). Second, if we are talking only about Euro-American conditions of transformation, then I wonder how we would put Narendra Modi and his type of Hindu nationalism in perspective (see, e.g., Ghassem-Fachandi 2012 for an ethnographic account of Hindutva nationalism in Modi’s home state of Gujarat). Ideas about “white supremacy” are extremely important for criticizing and resisting certain forms of racism, but not all forms of racism necessarily share the same features or combine in the same ways with neo-nationalisms.

Damani Partridge: In terms of Mayanthi’s question, I think there is a kind of dishonesty on the Left about the persistence or the necessity of white supremacy as a framing of that ideology—which makes me skeptical about those people being in charge of determining our futures.

Sindre Bangstad: Another question this roundtable raises for me is of the usefulness of the very term: the politics of affect. We have referenced here the work of Brian Massumi (2009), who published a book with this very term back in 2009. Because, on the one hand, and this is here from the very notion that populists, right-wing populists and the Far Right, mobilize based on affect rather than reason, is also a way of “exceptionalizing” these political formations, to pretend they are in some respects—and this was one of the provocations Mayanthi threw in—all qualitatively different than liberal and conservative political formations. So, from your vantage point—and I would very much like to involve those of you who are working on Eastern Europe on this—Agnieszka and Margit, would you be able to respond to that question? How useful is this very term affect?

Agnieszka Pasieka: Well, if you want people studying Eastern Europe to respond to the question on “affect,” it automatically suggests Eastern Europe is an exceptional case—and this is precisely what I was arguing against. In a recent publication on populism, Rogers Brubaker (2017) builds his argument about populists by asserting how different far-right parties in Western Europe—they are all secularized and defend liberal rights—are from the parties in Eastern Europe. I think this sort of analysis is really a trap. We really need to look for more commonalities among these different contexts and start to think about European, Euro-American, Western, and not only Western populism. And actually, before I answer this question, I would like to quickly reply to Paul, because I think we should be skeptical toward emergent populisms: populism is always exclusive, it always excludes. Calling for a left-wing populism would actually contain so much of what left-wing observers are criticizing and would be probably just as exclusive. I think there is not much more I could add here, after my fellow panelists’ responses—I think we actually came close to answering Sindre’s and Heiko’s questions by asserting we cannot pretend far-right followers and voters are irrational, emotional, driven by fear and worries. I think, on the contrary, they know very well what they do and where they are heading. So, yes, I would rather reject the notion of a “politics of affect.” In Western and in Eastern Europe, it is simply not a useful way of analyzing things.

Paul Mepschen: I will try to respond to Agnieszka. I do agree with some of the things you’re saying. There is a consistent problem within the European Left, including “the Left of the Left.” That is, large parts of the Left have no answer to the question of how to deal with white supremacy, how to deal with the racism that affects parts of the Left’s potential electorate but also Leftist traditions—often deeply influenced by culturalist conceptions of populations and society—in more general terms. Certainly, the Dutch Socialist Party—which is similar to Die Linke in Germany—has no discourse about racism at all. And this in a period in which the country is basically exploding, in which racism is so much on the rise. So, that is clearly problematic. At the same time, I do not fully agree. I do agree we need to take seriously the affective dimensions of politics and the need for a kind of affective Left that considers the precarity, the anxiety, that is produced in and through neoliberal practices and policies. And I think every political project is based on political antagonism (Mouffe 2018). I mean, the classic leftist project is a class-based project in which the working class is struggling against the bourgeoisie that’s exclusionary. I think that is a “good” form of producing antagonism. I think it is possible to have a more inclusive, more progressive definition of the people while holding onto a class based, antiestablishment politics. And I think it is not unthinkable to work on alternative definitions of the people that are antiracist and inclusive in other ways. And one of the political formations I am actually thinking of is Podemos in Spain, which I think we might see as an example of that. I mean, it could be seen as a form of leftist, inclusive populism that is not anti-multicultural and that is anti-racist in its core. I hope that answers the question.

Agnieszka Pasieka: I think it is a fascinating question whether it is possible to contemplate a progressive form of nationalism, as a political project. And I think the answer is yes, not only is it possible, but I think it is actually the only chance that there is at the moment. But instead of using the notion of affect, I am going to use the term of sensibility. This kind of progressive nationalist project would need to be very inclusive and perhaps, paradoxically, accepting even some views we do not generally think of as progressive and being attentive to a variety of political sensibilities, as a result of a sort of compromise. And as to the idea that neoliberalism leaves many people behind: that much is true. However, to make this claim, I think we should really investigate very closely the particularities at hand. For example, Poland has a 4.9 percent unemployment rate. The Polish society is rapidly secularizing, and the country actually has a growing number of immigrants because of labor shortage and the consequent demand for workers from Ukraine.[3] So, referring to this notion of the “underdogs of neoliberalism,” it is not really the economic deprivation that drove Polish far-right parties to rise.

Andre Gingrich: I think a good way to answer Agnieszka’s question could follow the suggestion by various thinkers in anthropology to “learn from the South” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2011), from one of the best examples for a progressive national standards from Nelson Mandela and a perspective that was fixated on not only South Africa per se but on the African national interests—an open form of charting a national course of inclusive trans-linguistic, trans-denominational, transcultural dimensions. In Europe, it would have to be transnational, but European-wide and at the same time not Europe-centric, but that, I think, does provide us with a perspective. I think we should “learn from the South.”

Mayanthi Fernando: I actually want to respond to my fellow panelists: I am really baffled by all your faith in progressive nationalism. I have to say, I am really curious about that.

Andre Gingrich: I want to note that we were first talking about progressive populism. And there’s a very interesting slip going on, from progressive populism to progressive nationalism.

Mayanthi Fernando: Absolutely. But the question has now become: “Is there a possibility of progressive nationalism?” and my answer would be: absolutely not! I do not understand how nationalism could be anything but exclusionary in a really radical racist sense. On this issue, Étienne Balibar (1991) is absolutely right: modern nationalism is, at its heart, a form of racism.

Paul Mepschen: I think we need to be critical of liberal conceptions of what populism is. In the Netherlands, debate on the issue in fact seems motivated by a resentful distaste of populism and with the “masses” associated with it—an “elite resentment” grounded in the idea that a cultural degeneration of the masses has contributed to a vile civic and political climate in which pragmatic, reasonable, and civilized debate and policy are under pressure. One could speak of a “cosmopolitan groupism” in which an ever-larger arsenal of concepts is poured into a simplistic dichotomous model—people versus elite, nationalism versus cosmopolitanism, lower educated versus higher educated, winners versus losers (of globalization), conservative versus progressive, and materialist versus post-materialist. In these analyses, it sometimes seems as if Dutch society is torn apart by a kind of culture war between cosmopolitan, enlightened, progressive urbanites and introverted, less educated, conservative provincials.

This approach reproduces a substantialist understanding of “the people” not as a political construct symbolically constituted in relations of antagonism but rather as a bounded whole, an entity with a distinct substance—conservatism, nationalism, provincialism—acting under its own power. Understood in this way, populism becomes a property of particular groups. Such analyses to a certain extent can be said to be complicit with populism, because they constitute a repetition of the populist claim that “the people” exist as a bounded whole with a distinct substance, coherent will, and collective agency. The problem with this is that it is based on a fundamental denial of liberal and elite racism. So yes, I think we have to defend a kind of progressive popular sovereignty. But I am not sure how. And just one more thing: to argue that economics matter, that neoliberalism matters, that there is something like post-Fordist nostalgia or affect, does not mean right-wing populism is about only the downtrodden, only the poorest people. The middle classes that are mobilizing these affects are especially feeling these pressures and anxieties. And they are moving to the right. It does not mean they are right. They are wrong. But I am taking seriously that that’s going on, we have this tendency, and, finally, we have to win these people back.

Mayanthi Fernando: As a final comment, I think that’s why we have to think about gender in this discussion of populism. Even though those middle classes who are moving to the right may not necessarily say they’re concerned with masculinity, they are, in fact, often concerned with heteronormative masculinity. And this is why psychoanalysis is actually really interesting: because it refuses to take at face value what people say. And that, I think, is really key here.


Sindre Bangstad is Senior Researcher at KIFO (Institute for Church, Religion, and Worldview Research) in Oslo. He has undertaken ethnographic fieldwork among Muslims in Cape Town and Oslo. Among his recent monographs are Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia (2014), The Politics of Mediated Presence: Exploring the Voices of Muslims in Norway’s Mediated Public Spheres (2015), and Anthropology of Our Times: An Edited Anthology in Public Anthropology (2017).

Heiko Henkel received is PhD from Princeton University in 2004. His dissertation and subsequent work explored elements of the Islamic tradition, especially the form and significance of formal and informal rituals. He currently works on the entanglements of national civic traditions, governmental regimes, and religious traditions in Denmark and across Europe. As Director of Studies of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, he is also interested in curriculum reform and the future of anthropology.

Bjørn Enge Bertelsen is Professor in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen. His research includes political anthropology, egalitarianism, cosmology, and urban Africa. Recent books include the monograph Violent Becomings: State Formation, Sociality, and Power in Mozambique (2016) and the edited collections Crisis of the State: War and Social Upheaval (2012), Violent Reverberations: Global Modalities of Trauma (2016), Critical Anthropological Engagements in Human Alterity and Difference (2016), and Mozambique on the Move: Challenges and Reflections (2019).


[1]. On “denials of racism in the “Muslim question” more generally, see Meer and Modood (2009).

[2]. The Iron Guard (aka Legion of the Archangel Michael) was a far-right movement and party active in interwar Romania and led by Corneliu Codreanu.

[3]. It is of course a very selective immigration policy. Labor shortage does not translate into the government’s attempts to accommodate refugees and immigrants from North African or Asian countries.


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