02 May

Is racism an environmental threat?

Posted By polity_admin_user

A couple of friends have kindly offered me a space to write something that helps introduce ‘Is Racism an Environmental Threat?’ (IRET?). Vijay Prashad’s Will The Flower Slip Through The Asphalt (LeftWord Books, 2017) has been one of such spaces. Olivia Rutazibwa’s blog Rethinking Francophone Africa is another. Polity Press has also asked me to write a couple of paragraphs to introduce the book on their blog.

If there is proof needed that writing is always an artificial suspension of an analytical process that can go on forever here it is. As I began writing these introductory notes, I found myself too often thinking about what I wished I had written, who I wished I had quoted and what I wished I had emphasized, just as much as about what I have already written, quoted and emphasized.

I will highlight two very general considerations animating the book. What I have just said above means that these considerations are at the same time of the order of the ‘already in the book’, and of the order of the ‘I wish I had emphasized this more in the book’.

Since my very first book (White Nation 1998) I have been conjuring analyses of human-animal relations of domestication as a way of helping clarify the nature of certain inter-human relations of domination and exploitation. While I have found it useful, I have also felt that this intellectual instrumentalisation of animal misery to understand human misery was not ethically satisfactory. It simply forefronted human misery, and paid scant attention to the domination and exploitation of animals as a subject in its own right. To say ‘the manager of this sweatshop works the Vietnamese women as if they were mules’ might help us get a sense of the intensity of exploitation to which the Vietnamese women are subjected, but it often demonstrates that, beside their analogical value, we couldn’t care less about what is happening to the mules. IRET? is a step in the direction of caring about what is happening to the mules. That’s the first broad consideration. The second consideration involves an attempt to define the moment where the other, human or natural, moves from being ‘a nuisance in my space’, a problematic object in my environment, to something that turns my whole space into a nuisance and transforms my whole environment into a problem.

An ecological crisis is by definition something all-encompassing. It relates to everything located within it from the very moment it becomes categorised as an ecological crisis. This is why we also refer to it as ‘environmental’. When a crisis is deemed “environmental” it is no longer a crisis in a specific relationship that one can have with a particular x or y. It becomes a crisis of the very environment, or milieu, in which we can have relationships to x or y. Take for example a garbage-collection crisis that has been taking place in Lebanon since 2015. It began as a breakdown in the garbage disposal system due to its complex entanglement with the logic of economic and political sectarian competition in the country. As people began to dispose of their rubbish anywhere they could, the garbage started fouling the already polluted environment. Soon the street smells, the ugly appearance of sea and mountain vistas, the contaminated rivers, permeated everything, causing inconveniences, discomfort and disease. “Garbage disposal” was no longer an unmanageable relation to garbage; it became constitutive of the entire social atmosphere. It affected the way people worked, their mood, where children played, what could be eaten and where one could eat, how and where one could exercise, and more.

It is a similar all-encompassing quality that defines the “environmental crisis” we are facing globally today. Because of this, it is always possible to demonstrate that any social phenomenon is related to the environmental crisis. From such a perspective, however, we cannot tell if there is a difference between the relation between ecological crisis and racism and the relationship between the environmental crisis and the fluctuations of the stock exchange. In both set of relations we can imagine processes independent from each other coming to intersect, precisely because of the all-encompassing nature of the environmental crisis. The relation between the two is here imagined as external and conjunctural. What characterizes IRET? is the search for a different, internal, and far more intimate relation between racism and the ecological. It is argued that the two are never independent of each other to begin with. Their commonality and their interaction is not conjunctural but part of their very nature.

Some time ago now, I was struck by the uncanny resemblance in the language used by the Australian government when it was dealing with refugee boats heading towards the Australian coast and the language used to refer to oceanic waste. More precisely, the way the government spoke of the people smugglers who ‘dumped’ refugees in the ocean was very similar to the language used to speak of people illegally dumping toxic waste. What is imagined in both cases is, first, a social process happening outside Australia and producing a useless and harmful by-product, and, second, someone illegally attempting to force Australia as a nation to deal with this harmful by-product for which it has no usage, and against the national will and interest. Waste, unrecyclable, ungovernable, un-incompassable and toxic; All these classificatory names and adjectives and the images associated to them are important in helping us understand what is happening in the case of refugees and in the case of oceanic waste.

They are important for understanding the way we experience the ecological crisis generally and global warming in particular. The toxic gases and chemicals that are constitutive of our physical environment and that we consider partially responsible for the ecological crisis are primarily waste. That is, they are the by-products of a process of production and consumption. They are also unrecyclable waste which is a category relative to a specific social arrangement and technological knowhow: what is unrecyclable today might not be tomorrow thanks to some technological innovation or within different social relations. Still some waste proves itself to be durably unrecyclable marking the limitations of a society’s technical capacities. But what constitutes the ecological crisis is not just the existence of unrecyclable waste. As important is the experience of this un-recyclable waste as something that is going out of control, as something ungovernable: we have no way of dealing with it. It is also not just ungovernable but also un-incompassable. This concept (which has it roots in the work of Louis Dumont) is crucial. There are things we consider ungovernable but that remain containable, that is, they remain ungovernable within the frames of governability that are set by a given governmental process and power. As such they do not radically challenge the position of the governmental subjects. There are however ungovernable objects that become so ungovernable in scale that they become, intellectually and physically, impossible to encompass even as governmental problems: they cross governmental boundaries (such as national borders) and instead of us encompassing them they start to encompass us. This is, as noted above, when we move from a governmental crisis to an environmental crisis, from having an object being out of control within our milieu to that object diffusing itself in such a way such that the entire milieu in which we exist becomes experienced as out of control. Finally, even unrecyclable, ungovernable and un-encompassable waste is not enough to define an environmental crisis without the last classification: toxic, that is, harmful. The ecological crisis is not only the experience of something useless (waste) from which we cannot extract any more value (unrecyclable), becoming both ungovernable and un-incompassable. Importantly this ungovernable and un-incompassable waste is also considered by us as harmful: it damages us as individuals and as collectives. It damages our social relations and our practices. It can do so because it damages the very milieu in which these are constituted.

What is striking today is that each and every one of these classifications and their associated imaginary can also be used to understand the way ‘the Muslim refugee’ is experienced in the West. That is, these classifications are at the very heart of what we call Islamophobia. The Muslim refugee, particularly the Syrian refugee today, is first and foremost perceived as waste. It is the refuse, the by-product of wars or of social transformations that uproot people from their land and their societies without these societies having the means of re-integrating them. Just as importantly, the Muslim refugee today is unrecyclable: this, in a way, is one of the crucial differences between the classification of refugees today and their classification during and immediately following WWII. In the latter case refugees were also seen as the refuse and the waste produced by war and social transformations, but, because of its expanding economies, the West was largely convinced by refugee advocates and industrialists to look at them largely as recyclable: it could make new usage of them. This is not the case with the refugees of today: thanks largely to its shrinking economies the West sees them as unrecyclable waste.

At the same time, this unrecyclable waste is going out of control, it is perceived as unmanageable, as ungovernable, it does not stay put. Despite the conspiracy theory imaginary that often accompany them, wars such as in Iraq and Syria are beyond control. More importantly, they are increasingly becoming perceived as un-incompassable. Their effect whether in the form of the spread of Islamicist terror organizations or the spread of refugees cannot be contained to specific localities. The Muslim others are experienced as a ubiquitous presence. S/he is everywhere. They are growing locally while also traversing and overflowing national borders. They do so in such a way that they are creating anxieties in the Western governmental subjects concerning their very capacity to be sovereign governmental subjects. Un-incompassibility is perhaps more than anything else the trigger of the kind of phobic anxieties from which the Western Extreme Right feeds. It triggers fantasies of reverse colonisation: fictional stories where the populations that have traditionally been colonised by the West are feared of becoming themselves the colonisers of Western populations. Anything, from the deadly but pathetic figure of the ‘Islamic terrorist’ to the non-assimilating ‘Halal meat eating’ Muslim, feeds the spectre of Muslim domination. This takes us to the final classification: the toxicity and harmfulness of the Muslim other: the Muslim’s mere presence is seen as having a negative impact on the West (conceived as anything but Muslim) and as able to potentially destroy it.

The Muslim then like a fluorocarbon gas is an unrecyclable, ungovernable, un-incompassable, toxic waste. It is not an object that is just mildly polluting certain social spaces within the modern social environment but an active subject has diffused itself throughout the planet and is responsible for wholescale global social crisis.

To be clear, this classificatory similarity is not what IRET? is about. Rather, noting and detailing the similarity is the starting point. The book argues that the classifications and the practices that constitute colonial racism and the practices that have generated the destruction of the natural environment are mutually self-reinforcing because they share a common root: they have a common mode of existence – a manner in which we humans are inserted, and deploy ourselves, in the world – that works as their generative principle. This is what is referred to in the book as ‘generalised domestication’. The book aims to explore this generalised domestication in so far as it constitutes a way of inhabiting the social and natural world. It analyses the practices and classifications that constitute its elementary structure. Last but not least, it explores the way this structure is articulated to and came to constitute the core of mono-realist capitalist modernity, and how it continues to propel the always patriarchal, always racist, always speciesist drive to colonise the world that characterizes the modernist capitalist project.

This article has been re-posted on the Polity website by courtesy of the author, Ghassan Hage. The original article can be found at his blog.

Ghassan Hage is Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne.

His book, Is racism an environmental threat?, is available from Polity.