Hundreds of black and brown people pack onto flimsy boats, dozens charging to board trains on the border of Italy and Austria, walking along barbed wire fences along the Croatian-Hungarian border, or stuck in the Calais Jungle. In these images, I see movement without change; the plays and the scene repeat against different backgrounds. Focus on Syrian refugees fleeing the latest war of global capital, in which Bashar al-Assad, Russia, the US, the UK, and many smaller military groups fight to be the country’s law enforcer. Arriving in Europe, having crossed the war zone that is Libya and the Mediterranean Sea, they and others fleeing wars and dispossession in Africa end up in the hands of undercover law enforcement agents from Austria and, more recently, Germany, who walk through trains stopped at the border stations asking black and brown travelers for passports and other forms of identification. Another video of an unarmed black person being killed by a police officer and another black neighborhood in revolt after the acquittal or non-indictment of another murderer occupy screens and Facebook newsfeeds.
The racial is the single most important ethico-juridical concept in the global present. National and regional wars in the Middle East and Africa and the urban and rural warfare in the economically dispossessed spaces of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, the US, and Canada are neither effects of nor in excess of, but are rather integral to, the ethico-juridical assemblage that facilitates global capital’s access to the productive resources—bodies and lands—it needs in order to thrive and reproduce.
My reading of Alain Badiou’s statements on Islamophobia and Slavoj Žižek’s comments on Europe’s “refugee crisis” makes a case for a kind of thinking that is capable of tracing how coloniality figures in all shapes of capital, without reducing it to a linear temporality or to an accumulative or developmentally separate (parallel or subordinate) process, but instead refiguring the basic juridico-economic mechanisms of capitalist expropriation. Only complex, non-linear thinking can trace how (a) the colonial (juridico-economic) matrix that sustained merchant capital (b) operates through the racial (political-symbolic) arsenal which still supports industrial capital as well as (c) financial capital through racial violence. This tracing produces an ethico-juridical assemblage that includes the wars of global capital forcing millions out of their homes to cross the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Anticolonial (postcolonial or decolonial) and critical racial theory condition a reading of these images as captions of racial events.
… In the Reactionary Sense
Leftist thinkers, in commenting on these events, rehearse a version of Marx’s argument that the colonial plays no role in capital accumulation. When making this point in the past, I have been asked, “Who cares?” My reply is always: I care, because the historical materialist perspective provides the best basis for the critique of capital, but only if it stops misunderstanding colonial and racial violence as an opportunistic ideological leftover of global capital. Through a reading of Badiou’s and Žižek’s commentaries on recent racial events, I will explain this misunderstanding as a failure to think colonial and racial violence in its full fractal complexity. In their attempts to rescue the subject (and its objects) from their Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment destiny, thinkers such as Badiou and Žižek—and their speculative-realist students—have not been able to think through/with the most significant creation of modern thought—namely, the figure of the Racial Other. Both fail to comprehend the juridico-economic significance of the Racial Other in modern thought because, for them, racial/cultural difference is a given and thus need not be subjected to further scrutiny. What accounts for this failure to understand the workings of raciality in the global present? Explicitly, their failure is the result of deploying a notion of cultural difference that is too reliant upon early (twentieth-century) sociological accounts of racial subjugation; implicitly, the linear, or one-dimensional, thinking that subtends this deployment of cultural difference in their discourse severs the links between various incarnations of capital across the fabric of global spacetime.
In a recent interview published in the International Socialist Review, Badiou responds to questions about Islamophobia and the recent rise of the nationalist far right (the National Front) in France. Linear thinking and a flawed conceptualization of cultural difference allow Badiou to negate the juridico-economic factors playing out in Islamophobia, by articulating these factors while disavowing them at the same time, denying them a determining role. Badiou’s linear thinking is evident in his distinction between the colonial past (Algeria) and a contemporary French context contaminated by an unbecoming ideological leftover from that past. He identifies two causes of the growth of Islamophobia in France today: the first is “of an ideological nature. It is racism that can be traced back to colonialism, this feeling of superiority of the Western World.” The second cause is of a different order:
After the war we had a great number of workers coming into the factories in France, and those workers were in their majority Arabs and Muslims. The great majority of Arab and Muslim Workers are poor people who live in very difficult conditions in the suburbs. They are segregated because most white workers don’t—and often refuse to—live in the same neighborhoods. So we have a mix between something of a racist, ideological nature, and something of a social nature: a mix of ideological tradition in the reactionary sense, and something which takes the form of class struggle. And it is this mixture that creates a very difficult situation of Arabs and Muslims.
For Badiou, this is a situation that does not require further analysis because, he claims, it can be solved by a return to the “true Republican tradition” of equality in education.
What is at work here? On the one hand, Badiou’s analysis of Islamophobia rehashes the depoliticizing reasoning characteristic of early twentieth-century approaches to the sociology of race relations arising from the prejudice, discrimination, and segregation of and against Southern and Eastern European, East Asian, and black migrants to the northern and eastern cities of the US. Badiou replays this early sociological account, which locates the causes of racial subjugation in individual prejudice and discrimination on the basis of particular physical and mental traits that were thought to be racial and mental, respectively. But what early sociologists such as Robert E. Park attributed to skin color, odor, and food, Badiou blames on poverty. While Badiou’s argument has all the hallmarks of a statement on juridico-economic processes, with phrases such as “something of a social nature,” it loses explanatory relevance because he does not relate the poverty afflicting Arabs and Muslims either to colonial expropriation (back then and over there in Algeria) or to capitalist exploitation (right here and now in France). For Badiou, once Algerians arrived in France to be exploited as workers by capital, the colonial relation with France vanished. Crossing the Mediterranean transforms the Algerian from “native,” to use Fanon’s term, into “poor worker,” allowing the French Republic to deny responsibility for the plight of Arabs and Muslims.
Žižek’s “Confronting Global Capitalism”
Let me now turn to Žižek’s writing on the refugee crisis as an example of an argument in which cultural difference provides the logic, but is simultaneously rejected as an organizing principle of European existence. In a recent article, he offers four prescriptions for facing the new challenges posed by global capital. His second and fourth interest me most. Let me begin with the second:
Europe should organize itself and impose clear rules and regulations. State control of the stream of refugees should be enforced through a vast administrative network encompassing all of the European Union (to prevent local barbarisms like those of the authorities in Hungary or Slovakia). Refugees should be reassured of their safety, but it should also be made clear to them that they have to accept the area of living allocated to them by European authorities, plus they have to respect the laws and social norms of European states: No tolerance of religious, sexist or ethnic violence on any side, no right to impose onto others one’s own way of life or religion, respect of every individual’s freedom to abandon his/her communal customs, etc. If a woman chooses to cover her face, her choice should be respected, but if she chooses not to cover it, her freedom to do so has to be guaranteed. Yes, such a set of rules privileges the Western European way of life, but it is a price for European hospitality. These rules should be clearly stated and enforced, by repressive measures (against foreign fundamentalists as well as against our own anti-immigrant racists) if necessary.
None of of Žižek’s suggestions differ from those of the European civilizers of yesteryear, who also called for and designed mechanisms of assimilation, regulation, and repression. Again, the rhetorical crutch of cultural difference and linear thinking accounts for this repetition. Žižek ignores the fact that the EU already welcomes refugees with a biopolitical apparatus of law enforcement, border protection, and other national and regional security measures, procedures, and entities. The logic of cultural difference severs the link between the violence that refugees of the wars of global capital meet in Europe right now—the building of walls, Islamophobia, deportation, and so on—and the current workings of state and capital. What I read in Žižek’s text is a symptom of a common(s) case of hysterical historical blindness, an incapacity to see how raciality provides the ethical signifiers (racial and cultural difference) that collapse protection into security.
Leftist thinkers of today consistently repeat an insidious pattern of modern thinking which considers the racial a referent of another time and place, an ideological vestige of the colonial past. Like Badiou, Žižek misunderstands how the colonial and the racial have always been and remain integral to the functioning of global capital, and assumes that the architectures of total and symbolic violence that produce the figure of the Racial/Cultural Other of Europe have no juridical or economic relevance for what unfolds in the global present. In this critique of global capital, what counts is the European peasant, who lost access to communal lands due to enclosures; the juridico-economic figures of the native and the slave have no significance. To summarize, Badiou and Žižek’s respective positions (a) display their rejection of the juridical and economic significance of raciality, and (b) repeat early sociological accounts of racial subjugation, which (c) explain violence as an effect of cultural difference.
The “Social Conditions That Create Refugees”
The most difficult and important task is a radical economic change that should abolish social conditions that create refugees [emphasis the author’s]. The ultimate cause of refugees is today’s global capitalism itself and its geopolitical games, and if we do not transform it radically, immigrants from Greece and other European countries will soon join African refugees. When I was young, such an organized attempt to regulate commons was called Communism. Maybe we should reinvent it. Maybe, this is, in the long term, our only solution.
Reading Žižek’s final recommendation, I wonder how linear thinking and the logic of cultural difference figure in the communism Žižek posits as the solution to Europe’s “refugee crisis.” Would the communist world establish the “rules and regulations” he demands European countries put in place in order to curb refugees’ cultural “shortcomings” relative to the proper—European—values of universality and equality? And if so, how would this be different from colonialism?
Žižek’s and Badiou’s reframing of communism are inadequate bases for engaging global capital, owing to their incapacity to comprehend the colonial and the racial as integral to capital in all the shapes it has taken: merchant, industrial, and now financial. Similarly to Marx’s foundational texts, Žižek’s thinking of communism pays no attention to the state-capital mechanisms that ensure the expropriation of the total value yielded by the productive capacity of native land and slave labor in the Americas. Deployments of racial violence, such as the conflicts in the DRC (total violence) and the equating of Islam and brown/black bodies with terrorism (symbolic violence), are the means by which state-capital reproduces itself. These forms of violence create the conditions for today’s flow of refugees while at the same time justifying the enforcement of “protective” measures that result in the death and incarceration of many black and brown people.
In a discourse that masquerades as a departure from modern philosophy’s foundational binaries of nature/culture, body/mind, and object/subject, the linear thinking of Žižek and Badiou nonetheless repeats the logic of cultural difference. For Badiou and his students, relinquishing a position of superiority, authority, or mastery over things or humans is a gesture sufficient to release the subject from its immanent context and to extricate the subject from that which has been made available for thinking—object and Other. In other words, announcing the possibility of knowing without the presupposition of correlation, as in the position delineated by Quentin Meillassoux, is enough to liberate “objects” from the meanings and functions attached to them in the moment of naming; or announcing the appearance of a subject that is related to nothing but the event (Badiou) is enough to liberate its “Others” (those whom Badiou derides for holding on to cultural difference) from the meanings and functions attached to them in the moment of naming. Part of the problem is that linear thinking addresses both state capital and its figures of authority (the party and the subject) horizontally. That is, linear thinking assumes that these political (juridical, economic, and symbolic) entities emerged and continue to thrive in a context that is historically/temporally bounded and geographically/spatially circumscribed. For this reason, it cannot help but miss the fact that, in addition to the enclosures in England, conquest (colonization/settlement) and slavery are also integral moments in the founding violence of Capital.
Lately I have been considering a kind of thinking that is at least four-dimensional, and which I call “poethical” or “compositional” thinking. From a conventional historical materialist perspective, because of the ontic presupposition of atomic-level spacetime, any instance, moment, or event has three dimensions because it happens somewhere (location) and somehow (form) in space; as such, its figuring attends to length, height, and depth all at once. From what I call a “raw materialist perspective,” because of the ontic presupposition of the (particle-level) plenum, what happens is also a composition (or de-composition or re-composition), always already a reassembling of what has happened before and of what has yet to happen. Once one apprehends all that exists as a plenum, both what happens and what exists no longer have the fixed boundaries of Newton’s bodies and Kant’s categories (forms), and this makes it possible to think the world differently.
Three moves become possible. Firstly, when attending to the moment of occurrence (what happens), instead of grasping location as a point, where (in space) and when (in time), one can attend simultaneously to all four dimensions: space (depth, width, and length) and time (Einstein’s fourth dimension). Secondly, when attending to four dimensions without privileging time, which imposes directionality on thinking, the mind becomes capable of comprehending what happens as an instantaneous composition. Finally, when approaching what happens as a composition, it is possible to attend to its constitutive elements, which may also be part of other compositions (what has happened and has yet to happen) comprising similar elements. Attention to elements exposes similarities and enables a kind of material thinking capable of reading symmetries, or correspondences. Images of poethical thought are not linear (transparent, abstract, glassy, and determinate) but fractal (immanent, scalar, plenteous, and undetermined), like most of what exists in the world.
When poethical thinking contemplates the present situation in Europe, it does not image “unprecedented crisis,” but rather business as usual for global capital. A poethical mapping of the present reveals the language of assimilation and the impulse to protect the White/European “way of life” to be a repetition of the terms and logic deployed a century ago, when Anglo-American workers in the East and the Midwest of the US protested against the influx of Southern, Eastern European, and Asian immigrants, as well as black migrants fleeing the total violence of Jim Crow, on the basis that they would not assimilate and that they would lower the existing standard of living. Poethical thinking, deployed as a creative (fractal) imaging to address colonial and racial subjugation, aims to interrupt the repetition characteristic of fractal patterns. Attention to symmetries instantaneously locates a particular event in a global context shaped by the previous and future repetitions of the founding violence of capital. Because it attends to four dimensions, fractal thinking (poethical or compositional thinking) images the global as a part of the cosmos, and, as such, does not see it as constituting the ultimate ontic and ontological horizon for thinking. For since what happens occurs in the plenum, it is both an expression of, and expressed by, whatever exists under, above, and alongside; what has already passed, and what is yet to come. When a mode of thought graphs global capital among so many repetitive instants and instances of the deployment of colonial-racial machinery, it cannot be indifferent to racial violence in all of its iterations and expressions.
Denise Ferreira da Silva is Associate Professor at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia. She thinks through political theory, feminist theory, globalization, law & human rights, Latin American & Caribbean Studies, and cultural studies to uncover how raciality and coloniality manifest in the global present. She is the author of Toward a Global Idea of Race (2007) and Notes Towards the End of Time (2015), and the coeditor, with Paula Chakravartty, of Race, Empire, and the Crisis of the Subprime (2013).
Commissioning Editors: Linden Baierl, Staci Bu Shea, Pat Elifritz