Tabish Khair on xenophobia being elevated from a physical form to abstraction, resulting in Islamophobia and the rise of right-wing populists in Europe and elsewhere
Unmistakably, Tabish Khair writes brilliant ‘leaf-layered’ poetry and wandering novels. And he also writes mischievously from the ‘missionary position’ on unlicensed, forbidden subjects of Islamic terror, thugs, post-colonial vampires, filming a love story, etc. Reviewing his latest miniature, avant-garde prose painting, The New Xenophobia, is like walking barefoot on hidden landmines during a leaderless guerrilla warfare against the ravages of racism and slavery, from the streets of Molenbeek in Belgium to the hamlets of Barachhati, a non-descript village in Gaya district of Bihar. It is purely a matter of provincial accident that I also come from his imaginary land of ‘Wordsworth’s daffodils’ and ‘chopped hands’ in Gaya, where Khair grew up and honed his literary sensibilities. As we criss-cross alien identities in hybrid spaces at home and abroad, we are surreptitiously united in sharing the experience of smouldering furies of xenophobia in Aarhus in Denmark and Mumbai.
Thus, I read the book as an act of ‘epistemic disobedience’ against the violence of xenophobia and join in his utopian hope that our next generation will have no cause to read it. In a mellifluous, elegiac voice and lyrical and cosmopolitan prose, Khair chillingly reminds us that whether we like it or not, the violence of ‘abstract capital’ has eventually entered all pores of our social and biological existence. It must be admitted, regrettably, that capital has travelled from ‘the vacant into the vacant’ and afflicted everyone, including the victor and the vanquished. It is this real but fictitious ‘capital’ that Karl Marx described as a vampire—“an invisible, fluid, dead power that lives off the blood of living”—that has engendered xenophobia through a selective amalgamation of fear, difference and contact/border. In case you care to fight the fear of a stranger, you can’t do it by the total and complete shutdown of borders, nor can you win it at the ballot box. In other words, the fear of a stranger arising out of what Khair calls the “abstraction of high capitalism” has, indeed, become a new algorithm of violence, blurring the distinctions between the ‘animal loboreans’ of the past and ‘Homo faber’ of the present.
Written in a compelling and deeply introspective tone, The New Xenophobia is a searing double biography of older forms of racism, sexism and casteism, and a new form of totalitarian politics of hatred and prejudice against colourless, odourless, unnatural strangers in places of high or late capitalism, and also small, elite circuits in countries like India. Demolishing some popular myths about the crisis of liberalism and the lack of multi-culturalism behind the rise of new currents of xenophobia, he persuasively argues that “Xenophobia is not about people. It is about power”. In other words, xenophobia, old or new, is an institutionalised politics of exclusion by in-groups to exercise hegemonic power of defining and demonising out-groups. And this can be achieved with or without ‘eliminationist genocide’. The march of ‘Europe’s little Trumps’, ostracism of European welfare states against refugees/immigrants and the rise of Islamphobic public cultures set off the immediate provocation for Khair to provide a historical, philosophical and literary muse on the cannibalistic relationship between xenophobia (old and new) and capitalism in the most worrying times of what Zygmunt Bauman called ‘liquid modernity’.
The novelty of the book lies in capturing how the transformation of classical capitalism from early money and trade-production system of power into high capitalism has resulted into inevitable violence of difference against ‘pure strangers’ and ‘strangers within us’. In a Lacanian invocation of young Marx and impatient Foucault, Khair argues that the ‘old xenophobia’ was constituted by a capitalism based on production, labour and goods. In contrast, the ‘new xenophobia’ is shaped by a capitalism that no longer has much connection to production, labour and goods. Under the new xenophobia, as Khair explains, “the stranger remains a stranger and is not allowed to exhibit signs of his/her difference”. That is made possible because the ‘strangeness of the stranger’ is not located physically or bodily, but elevated to the level of abstraction. It is this abstraction of the stranger that has resulted into Islamophobia and the rise of right-wing populists in Europe and elsewhere. Thus, “Xenophobia is the attempt to reduce the other to a stranger and/or to reduce the strangeness of the other in a bid to empower oneself on terms denied to the other”.
Further, Khair teasingly argues that “the stranger of high capitalism is the other who simply offers his brutish body as distasteful evidence of the abstract relations of power. In other words, ‘new xenophobia’ turns its gaze on bodies that, in their physicality, are not fully or largely enabled by high capital. It focused on not all immigrants, but ‘illegal immigrants; not all Muslims, but ‘religious Muslims’, etc”.
In an independent essay-like chapter on deceptive violence, Khair provocatively challenges Steven Pinker’s much celebrated and seductive thesis that “we believe our world is riddled with terror and war, but we may be living in the most peaceable era in human existence”. Homicide rates may have declined over time and physical violence of certain types reduced, but Khair refutes his deceptive thesis that xenophobia is now either a residual issue or a hangover of the past. In fact, Pinker’s failure to see certain kinds of xenophobia as violence stems from deeply-entrenched epistemic violence of Homo economicus in the western knowledge systems.
Though the book is destined to become a major reference point for debates on xenophobia, I have a few quibbles with Khair. On occasion, his thesis of new xenophobia becomes an overly reductionist, post-structuralist trope, encompassing every form of latent or manifested violence, ranging from ethnic riots, massacres to genocides under the rubric of xenophobia. Also, we don’t get to hear about the role of politics of electoral returns in demonising ‘others’ in democracies. For instance, internal migrants in India often not only suffer discrimination in accessing welfare rights, they also become soft targets of xenophobic violence of communalism and ethnic riots in the north-eastern region, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, etc. Khair’s binary between Islam and capitalism is conceptually problematic, as xenophobia is not always about foreigners.
Donald Horowitz, Ashutosh Varshney, Paul Brass, Steve Wilkinson and others have confirmed Ashis Nandy’s insightful observation that when “nearness sours or explodes, it releases strange, fearsome demons”. Surprisingly, Khair evades the practices of xenophobia in non-capitalist totalitarian societies like the former Soviet Union, China and their satellite states. Is socialism/communism too innocent of xenophobia? And how about xenophobic violence of anti-Indianism in South Africa? Further, his central thesis of ‘abstraction of stranger’ has omitted the virtual world. It is common knowledge that the Internet or the digital space has become increasingly more xenophobic, as it generally spews hatred and prejudice against immigrants, Jews, homosexuals, Muslims, gypsies, those of African descent, and all human beings who do not fit into the supremacist and sexist perspective. Also, he is intriguingly silent on xenophobic violence of development, as more people have been killed in the name of development in this century than by all genocides put together. Could it not be argued that xenophobia is rooted into the symbolic register of representation and often produced through the paranoiac production of the ‘other’ in capitalism and socialism by the ideology of progress and development?
In most cases of xenophobia, the fear of the stranger or foreigner also exists as a psychic impulse towards narcissistic attraction for xenodochy (foreigner), leading to self-castration of our own fluid and fuzzy identities. To conclude, I am tempted to recall Derrida’s notion of hospitality denoting what he meant ‘love for strangers’, or more precisely ‘strange love’. This hospitality involves a radical, risk-taking welcoming of the stranger and tolerance of an intimate living partner, sometimes irritatingly hostile. In this ‘strange love’, we are open to someone who is neither expected nor invited. If this aporia is realised, perhaps our children will not read this book. And this will be Khair’s lasting contribution to the debate on xenophobia and violence!
Ashwani Kumar is a poet, policy researcher, author of My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter and currently professor of development studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai