Note: My rumination on whiteness and the emergence of a post-white world is not an attack on specific people, nor on “white people” in general. Nor is it intended to reify color as denoting essential characteristics; rather, I am using “whiteness” and “non-whiteness” to denote a mix of cultural, political and economic positions that are loosely aligned with skin color and color identifications. Starting around the 16th century, economic-technological and geo-political shifts were accompanied by cultural and epistemological shifts that both fed the political and economic power of European (and then US settler white) nations and drew funding and legitimacy from that power. It should go without saying that “whiteness” is not intrinsically bad, but not only does “power corrupt,”* but the standard set by hegemonic elites prioritizes both the epistemological frameworks AND the security of those identify as and with those elites.
Today, with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as symptomatic events, we are seeing, in slow motion, an epochal, epistemological shift from whiteness as the standard of power and cognition to… well, we don’t know yet. This is a long process that started a few centuries ago as a resistance to colonialism which was the outward face of the setting in of whiteness as the ground from which knowledge is generated and assessed, as well as the ground from which power, in increasingly global terms, is asserted both beneficently and exploitatively.
Globalism and globalization started with colonialism. Technological advances allowed for great increases in international trade and cultural exchanges, as well as more travel and migration. Resistance to the oppressive and patronizing aspects of colonial rule grew. And over the last five decades the decolonized increasingly claimed authority by owning and adapting the discourses and technologies of modernity. Globalism and globalization ballooned, with both white and non-white winners and losers. Interestingly but not surprisingly, the non-white winners were mostly aligned with what I am loosely summarizing as “white epistemology,” which has led to some symmetry between the nativism of non-white losers in majority non-white countries and the nativism of white losers in still-majority-white-but-likely-to-change countries.
The process, indeed progress, of white nativism was heralded by Martin Heidegger, among others. Reading through the late October 2016 issue of the London Review of Books (LRB), I found Heidegger quoted in Malcolm Bull’s intensely pertinent review of his Black Notebooks:** "Our historical Dasein experiences with increasing distress and clarity that its future is equivalent to the naked either/or of saving Europe or its destruction. The possibility of saving, however, demands something double: (1) the protection of the European Vőlker from the Asiatic; (2) the overcoming of their own uprootedness and splintering." (from Heidegger’s 1936 ‘Europe and German Philosophy’)
What Bull’s review does is link this early harking of the white (European/US) angst we are seeing in full flower almost a hundred years later to both a fascinating perspective on the necessary transformation of contemporary democracy proposed by the Russian political theorist, and Trump supporter, Alexander Dugin, and a pragmatic view of location-based rentiers (who accrue financial benefits simply by being citizens of economically and politically dominant countries) as proposed in Branko Milanovic’s analysis of inequality at the global scale. Bull tells us that Dugin draws on Heidegger to develop a “Fourth Political Theory” to replace the failed politics of liberalism, Marxism, and fascism, and explains: “Dugin takes Heidegger’s claim that the consummation of the essence of power can be seen in ‘planetarism’ as a reference to contemporary globalization – a moment when, as Heidegger prophetically described it, ‘the furthest corner of the globe has been conquered technologically and can be exploited economically.’ In this context, the Fourth Political Theory offers the only viable alternative for all those who, like the Russians, ‘suffer their integration into global society as a loss of their own identity.’” In Bull’s recounting of the Heideggerian trajectory which Dugin adopts, “the plight of the abandonment of being” is the necessary condition for another beginning, a greatness that “can only be realized by ‘a seizing of, and persevering in the innermost and outermost mission of what is German [MC note – or “German” is generalizable to nativist for a particular national context].”
Bull’s review gets really interesting and pertinent when he moves on from relatively familiar Heideggerian territory to Branko Milanovic’s work on inequality, twisting it cleverly into the trope of birth(erism) and thence into a plausible synthesis, “For anyone living in the West who is not in the highest 1 percent of global income, there is an economic incentive to think in Heideggerian terms: to stand firm on native soil and claim citizenship rent.” Bull’s path to this synthesis bears quoting here:
“…As the economist Branko Milanovic has shown, the best predictor of your income is not your race or class but your birthplace…. …what Milanovic calls ‘citizenship rent’ (the increased income you get from doing the same job in one country rather than another)…. This helps explain why citizenship has suddenly gained more salience than class [MC note: not sure I agree with this]…. In a world where geographical location is the best predictor of economic outcomes, being indigenous counts for a lot, and the natural born citizen clause attached to the presidency of the US provides a model. If the presidency is not open to immigrants, why should other jobs be? Of course, the new nativism feeds off ingrained forms of racial prejudice. But it is conceptually distinct, not least because in terms of global income distribution race is (as would-be migrants are well aware) far less predictive than location. You don’t have to be racist to be a xenophobe, for as Levinas commented in an essay on Heidegger, ‘attachment to place’ is itself a ‘splitting of humanity into natives and strangers.’”
While Bull’s review takes us through a joining of the Heideggerian narrative of plight to greatness with the pragmatics of a contemporary political economy of citizenship rents, along the way introducing us to the logic of a ‘Fourth Political Theory,’ two other reviews in the same issue of LRB bring whiteness back into the frame. One provides a view of the white US (masculine) left’s nostalgia for self-fashioning by the (Walden) pond, and the other is an explicit critique of white “racial paternalism” and insidious “evolutionism” in the field of international relations as it developed in the 20th century.
Stefan Collini’s review of Mark Greif’s Against Everything: On Dishonest Times surprised me by seeming completely out of touch with discursive struggles today. It is a kind and bland review that left me wondering if that reflected more about Collini or about Greif. I am mentioning the review here only because its most striking image is of a man, most decidedly a man, who must “have the nerve to look steadily [at an object of discussion] and think.” The figure of Greif emerges, according to and reflected by Collini, as an American (decidedly white) man who thinks and learns slowly by the side of a beautiful pond. Collini expresses a polite impatience at the end of his review – “but somehow this existential quest has to be made to connect up with collective modes of responding to a world in which global capital threatens to pollute the waters of the pond, build condos around its edge, and prevent access for all but the very rich.” I read this penultimate sentence of the review as residual impatience with an aging, declining trope.
Susan Pedersen reviews Robert Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics, which is a critical history of the field of international relations in the United States. Bluntly, she says, “and Vitalis is blunter,… international relations was supposed to figure out how to preserve white supremacy in a multiracial and increasingly interdependent world.” The history, as told, ends with a kind of “forgetting.” Pedersen tells us: "Mainstream scholars didn’t so much change their minds about race and empire as walk away from the question. Part of this shift was generational, as ambitious younger scholars turned towards bipolar rivalry as the hot new subject of research…. The horrific racial persecution of the Nazi regime had an impact too, delegitimizing explicit racial argument within the academy…. The 1960s would bring ‘race’ back to the academy – but mostly through new African-American studies programs, not political science or international relations…. [Vitalis] wants his discipline [MC note: as does Pedersen, it seems] to understand not only how central the category of race and the structures of racism were to its founding institutions and paradigms but also to see the erasure of that history not as progress but as repression, a wilful forgetting that has if anything made it less equipped to comprehend (much less to address) the shocking racial inequities that still mark both the American and the global order."
Pedersen’s review of Vitalis’ book focuses on a familiar narrative of white supremacy and racial inequities. Reading it in the narrow context of Bull’s review of Heidegger’s notebooks and Collini’s review of Greif’s thinking man, and in the broader context of Brexit and Trump’s campaign and win, I see it as more evidence of a writhing, but still long, tail-end of a flipping system, in which “whiteness” is still the face of the greatest concentrations of political, economic, and, yes, intellectual life, but is increasingly threatened by its own growing patches of flaccid entitlement and contradictions, as well as by the increasing authority of post-white voices (including voices from powerful non-white states, voices of superb non-white intellectuals, as well as voices from bodies that look white but are seeking an idiom that is different from the conventional idiom of standard whiteness).
I am intrigued by the notion of a “Fourth Political Theory,” but I won’t look for it in the nativist imaginings of Heidegger and Dugin. I believe that, for the most part, the emerging epistemology will leave behind the heroic, self-inventing, white man, whether left or right, though there will always be a role for heroic self-invention in human narratives, whether inspirational or autobiographical. A post-white globalism will emerge over the decades of this century, perhaps over centuries, not without pain, and certainly not a Utopia. Many of the current inequalities of global capitalism will continue and new hierarchies and oppressions will emerge. Does this mean that we should stick with the current, known system? I don’t think we have a choice. The system is changing. And there are exciting new possibilities for equity and beauty. But there are also sobering, very sobering, trajectories towards planetary dysfunction and increasing disparity between technologically-fuelled wealth and the drudgery and deprivation of those who are late, or unable, to access the technological means of production of the 21st century.
So while a post-white world is likely to emerge, we will still need to demand rights and equity for all, teach our children that a just system is possible, continue to be open to dialogue and community, continue to speak up when we see inequity and injustice, and, most vitally, continue to defend our planet.
* … to quote, quite comfortably, Lord Acton who was a small actor in the solidification of the primacy of the “Western tradition” as the top epistemology in a universe of otherwise lesser epistemologies.
** Of course, it is entirely part of the process to be using hegemonic epistemology itself to understand and critique the consistencies, contradictions, progress, and eventually supersession of that epistemology! We will not be outside that epistemology until we are outside that epistemology.