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Alana Lentin


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The humanist tradition, which provides the philosophical framework for the contemporary discourse of human rights, has, since the outset of the anti-colonial struggle, been critiqued for its deeply entrenched Eurocentrism. A complete historical-sociological and social theoretical approach to the discourse and practice of human rights today must take note of this critique of its philosophical foundations and ask what limitations it poses to the formulation of political contestations in the terms of human rights. My analysis of the development of the political idea of modern racism [1] demonstrates some important interconnections between "historicist' racism [2] and human rights discourse. It is important to take note of the relationship between universalism and racism, as explained by Balibar [3] and the way in which the discourse of human rights, based on a universalist ideal of humanity, is shaped by the Eurocentric development of the humanist legacy, which in turn enters into a relationship with the very racism it seeks to overcome. At a time when social movements for the struggle against racism and immigrants' rights in Europe are being increasingly constrained by a "rights' discourse, tabled by the professionalisation of the human rights lobby and its proximity to the locus of state and supranational power, it appears necessary to question the legacy of human rights both as an idea and as a practice that has the capacity to critique systems of state racism. In so doing, it is also crucial to discuss ways in which humanism can be reclaimed from its reactionary variant and re-radicalised for truly inclusive, creative and autonomous ends within progressive collective action.


The discourse of human rights has, since the 1980s, increasingly become the main way for conceptualising and acting upon social and political problems of justice. Therefore, it is fundamental to examine it from the point of view of a social theory of collective action, particularly within the realm of so-called progressive social movement politics.

Racism and universalism, to follow Etienne Balibar, are intricately linked. Therefore, the humanist project, founded upon an ahistorical essence of man that is universally applicable, poses fundamental problems as a response to racism. Racism emerged at a time of unparalleled democracy in the history of Europe, as can be seen from the history of modern antisemitism. Therefore, rather than being intrinsically opposed to them, it uses concepts such as universal humanism in the process of entrenching itself in modern state logics.

What are the consequences of this for the framing of contemporary struggles for justice within a perspective of human rights? The human rights approach is based on an unproblematised acceptance of foundational humanism that disregards its Janus-faced nature. The emphasis placed on human rights in progressive civil society presents us with a paradox that makes it impossible to use the discourse efficiently for anti-racist ends.

Nevertheless, there has recently been a call for the reappropriation of humanism emerging from a number of sources, which include proponents of the Global Justice Movement. What implications does the proposal of a radical humanism have for activism for the rights of migrants and asylum seekers in Europe today? My analysis is grounded in recent research into the treatment of "global migration" by groups linked to the European Social Forum. It carries on from my doctoral research into anti-racism in Europe and notes the current transformation of anti-racism today in response to the present purported "crisis" in immigration and multiculturalism.

Racism, modernity and universal humanity

One of the hardest challenges I have faced is in arguing convincingly that racism, as we know it today, is a modern phenomenon. It is vital, however, to demonstrate its modernity if we are to show how racism, rather than being a problem of individual pathology, is embedded in the structures of the modern nation-state.

Ivan Hannaford [4] traces the first usage of the term "race" to 1684 and François Bernier's publication of the Nouvelle division de la terre par des différents espèces ou races qui l'habitent, and shows how racism develops in three stages that culminate in the "Golden Age of Racism' (1870-1914). It is during this time that Benjamin Disraeli was able to say "Race is all: there is no other truth".

The gradual take-over of politics by "race"-thinking by the end of the nineteenth century set the stage for the Shoah: an outcome of the acute rationalisation of society brought about under the conditions of the modernisation of the European nation-state (Bauman). "Race" is a modern idea -- and the backbone for a modern politics -- for two main reasons:

  1. Because it requires a methodological shift -- from monogenesis to polygenesis -- to come into being. This shift comes about with Enlightenment and the abandonment of metaphysics for analyses based on rationality and progress.

  2. Because racism exists in a relationship of "reciprocal determination' with nationalism (Balibar).

The relationship between racism and nationalism is important because it explains how racism develops and persists over time. Balibar is careful not to reduce racism to nationalism or vice versa, but shows how they mutually reinforce each other. The nation-state -- the political vehicle for the ideology of nationalism -- becomes the framework in which racism switches from idea to systemic practice.

Naturalism and historicism

David Goldberg [5] (distinguishes between naturalist and historicist racism. The distinction helps us to more clearly see how racism becomes politically articulated within the context of the nation-state. Naturalist racism was predominant from the 17th to the 19th century. It refers to the pseudo-scientific belief in the immutable division of humanity into biological "races". While naturalism persists into modernity, it is accompanied by the nineteenth century, by a second, more ambivalent and entirely political form of racism. Goldberg calls this historicist or progressivist racism. It emerges mainly out of the conditions of colonial rule and proposes that inferior "races' may be civilised through assimilation.

The historicist approach to the government of Others -- both in the colonies and in the metropole -- is based on a supposed need for "racial realism': i.e. the possibility of being able to civilise "inferiors" by exposing them to the "superior" culture of the dominant group. Historicist racism treats non-Europeans as lesser-developed humans that may, through exposure to European culture (e.g. through education or bureaucratic systems), eventually attain the level of progress that Europeans were presumed to have already achieved.

The success of historicism is in its ability to outlive the public condemnation of naturalist racism. Many of the assumptions behind historicist racism persist. It is the basis for contemporary notions of colour-blindness -- or "racelessness" -- that perpetuate racial domination by literally refusing to see "race" or, in other words, denying the oppression caused by systemic racialisation. This means that it is impossible to point out racially based discrimination because we are assumed to live in a post-racial age of meritocracy. However, the refusal to see "race" and acknowledge racism means recreating the invisibility that -- to follow Frantz Fanon -- racialisation creates in the first place.

Racism and the paradoxes of equality

The distinction between naturalism and historicism helps us to understand how racism develops at a time of unparalleled equality in European societies. The administration of the colonies functioned according to a logic of progressivism based on the assimilation of the natives rather than their annihilation. Likewise, within the European nation-state, groups seen as Other were encouraged to assimilate despite being regarded as racially inferior. Seen from a perspective of Foucaldian bio-power, this matches the state's need to seek inclusion in order to be better able to discipline society.

The best example of the paradoxical relationship between racism and equality is that of modern antisemitism, as distinguished from pre-modern Jew-hatred.

Following the emancipation of the Jews, Judeophobia was transformed. Jews became the dangerous "race" among all "races", hidden and thus well placed to subvert the "race"-nation from the inside. Zygmunt Bauman, Hannah Arendt and Enzo Traverso [6] all well describe how this process was achieved. Jewish assimilation into mainstream society functioned as a kind of trap. On the one hand, refusing to assimilate would mean a life-sentence of "strangerhood". [7] On the other hand, giving up Jewish culture meant proving the superiority and universal validity of Christianity.

The problem for assimilating Jews by the time that "race" had come to dominate politics by the second half of the 19th century was that they would always be seen as impostors. Anti-Semites manipulated both the myths of religious Judeophobia of the Middle Ages and current racial science in order to prove the Jews' immutable inferiority and dangerousness. From the perspective of "race"-thinking, Jews would always be "other" because Judaism as a religion could be distinguished from Jewishness. While a Jew could relinquish her religion, she would be forever unable to deny her intrinsic self -- her racially defined Jewishness.

Racism and Universalism

The paradox of the parallel emergence of racism and equality within the context of the nation-state is complicated by the failure to question the legacy of universal humanism. The anti-humanism of the post-structuralists is today separated from the enthusiasm for human rights. However, a critique of human rights must examine its basis in the humanist legacy. For Frantz Fanon, [8] colonialism and racism find their justification in the values of Western humanism, which allows the coloniser to constantly speak of universal "Man" while murdering "men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe". [9]

Balibar explains the problem by pointing out the relationship between racism and universalism, which each has the other within itself. Racism is derived from the wish to define the "frontiers of an ideal humanity". [10] Racism as a system is itself universalised, with each "race" placed upon a hierarchy, headed by Europeans. Racism is inseparable from the project of creating a "general idea of man", at the basis of humanism because such an ideal must always be defined in relation to what it is not. The racialised "Other" serves to define universally rational man against which all other humanity is ranked.

It is important to point out here that historically this could have been otherwise. Cosmopolitan Enlightenment could have yielded an alternative conception of human difference that did not rely on a Eurocentric vision of what intrinsic humanity would look like. However, due to no small degree to the growing importance of the idea of "race", universal humanism became undeniably Eurocentric, and thus exclusionary, and ultimately dangerous. Such humanism can only fail in bringing about universal equality because it does not question the restrictiveness of its idea of humanity. This is because while non-Europeans are always perceived as "different" and "other", European humanity is taken as neutral, as the standard or norm.

The problem of human rights in contemporary activism

Human rights is in need of being problematised as a response to racism, but also as it is applied to all struggles for social justice. As Robert Young (1992) points out in his discussion of "Colonialism and Humanism", the problem with humanism is its ahistoricism; or its aim of putting humanity beyond history, at the level of the essential. On the contrary, the anti-humanist critique saw the need for a new historical humanism that would, as George Lukács wrote, see "man as a product of himself and of his own activity in history". [11]

The discourse of human rights, like a significant part of anti-racism, largely fails to historicise its origins. Much anti-racist discourse is built upon the false assumption that racism is an individual pathology that can be overcome at the behavioural level. This fails to pose questions about the role of the state in the emergence and compounding of racism under precise historical conditions. So racism is continually treated as an aberration of politics, rather than as systemically bound to them.

Similarly, human rights as a discourse today does not contain within it a questioning of the Eurocentric legacy of humanism and the concrete impact it had on the lives of non-Europeans as, for example, recipients of the "civilizing mission". It is assumed that human rights are good in and of themselves. What is not asked is whether, given their construction by Europeans, on the basis of a universal ideal of humanity based on Europeanness, they can ever be universally applicable. While laws and conventions based on human rights exist and are, in principle, applied internationally, it is important to ask whether laws which those they seek to benefit did not participate in formulating can actually work on their behalf.

The paradox of human rights

The current political situation is illustrative of the paradox central to human rights, which impedes the possibility for them to bring about greater equality. The global political situation since 11 September, 2001 demonstrates this paradox. It shows how humanist principles can be violated in the name of those same humanist ideals. For example, racist practices, legitimated by states, coexist with a declared commitment to spreading human rights. David Cole claims that the racial profiling techniques used to identify potential terrorists mean that,

"Arab Americans and Muslims have been "raced" as "terrorists": foreign, disloyal, and imminently threatening'. [12]

In other words, all Arab-looking people are potentially subject to investigation under anti-terrorism legislation, while a war is waged to bring democracy to Arabs whose human rights have been violated. In neither case can it be said that Arabs are being seen in a truly humanistic light. They constitute either threats or victims, and as such are stripped of autonomy. In either case, they are dehumanised (cf. Fanon, 1967), seen either as incapable of action or as the architects of actions so monstrous as to not qualify as human.

As Slavoj Zizek remarked in relation to the NATO intervention in Kosovo, it is disingenuous to see the objectives of humanitarian missions that aim to "restore human rights' as non-political because,

"beneath this depoliticised, lets-just-protect-human-rights rhetoric, there is an extremely violent gesture of reducing the other to the helpless victim'. [13]

Human rights are always bestowed by those whose rights are assured upon such helpless others. This is the main problem in the human rights approach. While human rights are the objective of activism, they cannot be self-granted. Therefore, the struggle for human rights is almost always undertaken on behalf of others.

When considering the anti-racist struggle, this poses some very significant problems. The dominance of human rights limits the scope for autonomous anti-racisms and forces them into a depoliticised realm populated by "eternal victims". The framing of all struggles against oppression in a human rights perspective creates the false impression that the problems of relativism are overcome by a re-found cosmopolitanism.

A second problem is also posed by the hegemony of the human rights approach: The professionalisation of human rights activism over the last two decades disconnects it from the lived-experience of those on whose behalf it seeks to act. Therefore, it denies the struggle of the racialised for autonomy in the definition of the anti-racist agenda. If humanism seeks the equality of all humankind, all must be equally free to act on their own behalf. Human rights, in fact, have the capacity to dehumanise those they seek to benefit because they are practiced on behalf of others and granted and violated by states in equal measure.

Towards a radical humanism?

Human rights as a discourse for framing struggles for social justice and human equality is limiting because, firstly, it fails to historicise the Eurocentric legacy of humanist universalism and demonstrate its relationship with racism and colonialism. Secondly, it is individualising, and therefore fails to see the complex interrelationships between humans as actors in society. Thirdly, it is a hegemonic discourse, promoted by states that are also involved in the violation of the human rights they promote; its hegemony means that it has become exclusive as the only means for acceptably framing struggles for justice and equality. Lastly, it has become professionalized and is not based on the lived-experience of those it seeks to act on behalf of.

This last point is crucial for examining under what conditions humanism may be able to be reclaimed. The project of proposing a new, historicised and radical humanism is central to understanding contemporary developments in social movement politics.

Globalization from below

Since the Seattle protests against the WTO in 1999, a global movement for justice has emerged, known originally as the anti-globalization movement but now more commonly as the movement for a globalization from below, or the Global Justice Movement. Within this eclectic movement, the struggle against racism and for the rights of migrants and asylum seekers is currently undergoing transformation. The treatment of the interlinked issues of migration and racism within the Global Justice Movement can help us to test the limits of so-called radical humanism.

Revolutionary vs. reactionary humanism

Hardt and Negri have made the distinction between reactionary, Eurocentric humanism and radical or revolutionary humanism. [14] Richard Pothouse has discussed it [15] in relation to the humanism of Frantz Fanon. According to Pithouse, revolutionary humanism means the potential in every human being to freely create and change her world. Reactionary humanism constrains this potential by turning the Multitude into Peoples. This takes the power of creation away from humanity and gives it to the Nation, or Europe, or the Party.

Pithouse sees Fanon as resolutely humanist in the revolutionary sense because of his emphasis on freedom, human desire, the potential of human agency and creativity and the interconnectedness of human beings. Humanism, therefore, has to be reendowed with this revolutionary spirit, grounding it in a critique both of western imperialism and of ultimately Eurocentric anti-humanism.

The problem of the Multitude

Hardt and Negri see the potential for re-endowing humanism with its revolutionary potential in the so-called Multitude. The Multitude is defined as "the universality of free and productive practices". This is distinguished from the People, defined as "an organised particularity that defends established principles and properties' (2000: 316). The Multitude is epitomised, in Hardt and Negri's work, by migrants, the sans-papiers and the landless people. Several authors strongly influenced by their work have used the concept of the Multitude to theorise the contemporary nature of global migration as a "social movement'. [16] Migrants are seen as truly transnational -- as global -- and hence capable of transporting politics beyond the particularity of the people. They would be the vehicle for a new radical humanism based on the agency and creativity of each human being to transform her world.

My research into the approach taken to migration by the Global Justice Movement -- within the European Social Forum -- points to the limitations and problems of this vision. The theorising of migration as a social movement has not emerged from the autonomous action of migrants on their own behalf. In that sense, it does not emerge from the Fanonian insistence on self-determination as necessary for the achievement of visibility and, therefore, justice. Rather, it has emerged from a particularly intellectualising strand within transnational progressive politics that focuses on migration as the prism through which to conceptualise contemporary, globalised social and political conflicts.

Migrants themselves have been consistently absent from the discussions that take place in these privileged transnational spaces, due precisely to the fact that they are not free to travel across borders once they reach Europe. They are not just impeded by state immigration policy, but also by the very social movement that seeks to defend them.

Anti-racism as practiced within the Global Justice Movement in Europe is witnessing a return to the paternalistic approach taken by the Left towards immigrants in the early post-colonial period.

Self-organised activism by migrants and asylum seekers centres much more concretely on the revendication of rights at the very local level. Migrants' response to their condition in Europe today falls between two poles: On the one hand, they are insightful about framing their struggles in terms of human rights. The hegemony of the discourse and its proximity to the locus of state power makes it unfeasible that they could logically be used to apply to the lives of migrants who are often clandestine, precarious, working in near slave conditions with no access to rights or social protection of any kind. On the other hand, the proponents of a theory of Multitude as the carriers of a new, radical humanism have shown an unwillingness to make space for the very migrants they seek to defend within the politics they have created through spaces such as the European Social Forum.

The current organisation and consolidation of autonomous networks of migrants and asylum seekers such as the Sans-papiers, the Comitato immigrati in Italy and the Voice in Germany (to name but a few) will have to struggle with both reactionaries and revolutionaries in their fight against racism.

[1] Lentin, Alana. "Racial States, Anti-Racist Responses: Picking holes in "culture" and "human rights",' European Journal of Social Theory 7 (4) November 2004: 427-443.

[2] Goldberg, David Theo. 2002. The Racial State. Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell.

[3] Balibar, Etienne. 1994. Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on politics and philosophy before and after Marx New York: Routledge.

[4] Hannaford, Ivan. 1996. Race: The history of an idea in the West. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[5] Goldberg, David Theo. 2002. The Racial State. Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell.

[6] Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press; Bauman, Zygmunt 1991. Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press; Arendt, Hannah. 1966. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; Traverso, Enzo. 1996. Pour une critique de la barbarie moderne: Ecrits sur l'histoire des Juifs et de l'antisémitisme. Lausanne: Editions Page Deux.

[7] Bauman, 1991, op. cit.: 112

[8] Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press; Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

[9] Fanon, 1963; op. cit.: 251.

[10] Balibar, Etienne. 1991. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. London: Verso: 61.

[11] Lukács, Georg. 1962. The Historical Novel (trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell): 28-9.

[12] Cole, David. 2003. Enemy Aliens: Double standards and constitutional freedoms in the war on terrorism. New York: The New Press: 54.

[13] This quotation I taken from a lecture given by Zizek, entitled "Human Rights and its Discontents' at Bard College on November 16, 1999.

[14] Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Empire. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press.

[15] The work by Richard Pithouse referred to here is a chapter entitled "Frantz Fanon and the Persistence of Humanism',

[16] Cf. Mezzadra, Sandro and Rigo, Enrica. 2003. "L'Europa dei migranti', in Giuseppe Bronzini, Heidrun Friese, Antonio Negri and Peter Wagner, Europa, Costituzione e Movimenti Sociali. Roma: Manifestolibri.




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