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Cultural Resources Sabine Hark and Sighard Neckel in conversation on Feelings of Resentment and Revenge

Sabine Hark and Sighard Neckel, Vierte Welt, Berlin, April 2017

Sabine Hark and Sighard Neckel, Vierte Welt, Berlin, April 2017

Success is a funny thing. Our understanding and valuation of it change the moment it becomes attainable to a wider group. In recent decades, the social conditions of middle-class and working people across the West have grown increasingly precarious, and it is increasingly difficult for them to meet the standing benchmarks of “having made it.” More than just a matter of damaged pride, the ramifications of this dynamic stand as a key factor engendering the rise of populism across Europe and the US. Looking ahead to our September issue on “Envy,” we are republishing a conversation between gender studies scholar Sabine Hark and sociologist Sighard Neckel from Issue No. 106, in which the two discuss how negative emotions can both cohere a cultural identity and, as such, be instrumentalized politically toward nationalist ends.

Sabine Hark: If we look at authoritarian movements across Europe in recent years, one thing we see is the hate-filled rejection of gender mainstreaming and the politics of gender equality more generally; as well as the rejection of sexual education of any kind, including gender studies – I, personally, have been a target of this vitriol. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) explicitly lists the elimination of academic gender studies among its political goals. Similarly, the Bavarian Christian Social Union has adopted a platform that unequivocally rejects gender studies. That’s something we need to first and foremost criticize and combat in the political domain. Since 1995, when the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, women’s movements around the world have basically sought to ally themselves with the state in order to push through policy regarding women’s rights and equality. While this alliance certainly merits critical reflection, it’s true that on many issues there’s just no alternative. But then one must also consider how this push for equality is met with resentment in the mainstream, and how that affect can be harnessed by authoritarian and neoreactionary movements. It’s worth noting that it’s not just an ideological trope when, say, exponents of the AfD and [far-Right] NPD party or writers for Junge Freiheit say: now Brussels [EU Parliament] is telling us how to be in our relationships and how to raise our kids and so on – because that’s in fact true. New legal norms have been enacted, and rightly so. Parents aren’t allowed to hit their children, women do have equal rights, marital rape is punishable, lesbian and gay partnerships are (nearly) equal before the law, and so on, to name only a few of the most fundamental achievements. And these can be used to incite opposition. What the Right has realized is that this field is one in which they can articulate and escalate the political antagonisms to great effect.

Sighard Neckel: I think that affect rings of what the American sociologist Arlie R. Hochschild describes in her book “Strangers in Their Own Land,” writing that, in practice, equal rights and anti-discrimination policies entail certain “feeling rules,” which is to say, rules that circumscribe the public expression of sentiments. This includes the command to forego envy and the articulation of aggressive feelings as well as the command of public compassion. Imposed from above, such feeling rules are apparently perceived as a burden, especially by those who believe that they no longer factor in to a broader public and can no longer articulate how they feel outside their own sheltered milieu. Such resistance is ostensibly rooted in their impression that difference is prized and rewarded with attention while they themselves are irrelevant. That’s perhaps one explanation for the deepening rift between not only the wealthy/powerful and the rest, but also between the metropolis and the periphery, and the urban and the rural (paradoxically, many of those areas aren’t even really “rural”). Still, people outside the metropolitan centers increasingly feel that they don’t really have anything to contribute to these interesting, expanded ways of living that receive so much attention. This position leads to feelings of humiliation, and those emotions await relief, as a desire for retribution and revenge.

Hark: Politics driven by resentment toward this notion of “interesting, expanded ways of living” are gaining ground everywhere. American sociologist Rogers Brubaker’s new book “Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities” compares the case of Rachel Dolezal, who posed as an African-American woman, to that of Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender woman and TV celebrity of Kardashian family fame. In his exploration of the concept of “trans” he examines why, in an American context, questions of transgenderism are apparently much less problematic than those of trans-racial formations – the latter being considerably more controversial in the US, particularly in African-American communities. But the book also notes that questions of gender and sexuality, of family and ways of living, have always been the greater challenge for the Right. I would agree. At the same time, these issues make for a particularly rich field of political engagement because, for everyone, they hit close to home, because everyone feels right away like, men and women, we know what that’s about, that’s something we can all speak to, that immediately concerns every one of us, and no one can tell us what to think about it – not bureaucrats in Brussels, not some gender studies professor, and not the social studies teacher who brings a queer sex-ed project into the classroom.

Neckel: No doubt. Still, I would bring in Angela McRobbie here, who has taken interesting stance by framing a kind of self-criticism rooted in feminism. Feminist movements need to reflect on the extent to which they’ve become an element in the expansion of capitalist competition. It’s an issue that would seem fundamental to the dynamics of Trump’s election and Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

Hark: We mustn’t forget, though, that Clinton lost the election because of the American electoral system. The majority of voters supported her. But what I think makes McRobbie’s position interesting is that she doesn’t say that feminism itself is ideologically corrupt. Rather, she argues that it’s been rearticulated anew in different social formations, and that these articulations must be studied. We can then look at which ones dovetail with, say, neoliberal transformations and certain dynamics within late capitalism. But we can also ask in which ways feminism actually continues to be a contrarian project.

To me, personally, that’s a more interesting critique than, for example, Nancy Fraser’s, which argues that feminism has veered into a kind of complicity with neoliberalism or, worse, perhaps didn’t just abet its ascent but in a certain way actively contributed to bringing it to power. It’s not a long way from there to the claims that feminism shares responsibility for the rise of neoreactionary politics. More recently, Fraser – somewhat distancing herself from such harsh assessments and now framing a more nuanced view – has spoken instead of a feminism that contains certain tendencies, ones that (with McRobbie) we might call prosperity- or performance-feminism, the feminism of the 1%, as it were, which also may have been part of what did Clinton in, because many voters saw her as being also an ally of the interests of financial capital.

Neckel: What makes sense to me about your critique of Nancy Fraser’s work is that it would be a mistake to say, well, feminism has turned out be an ideology and allowed itself to be corrupted. That’s putting far too much emphasis on conscious intentions. Rather, it would seem that we’re embroiled in a social process with repercussions that will only become visible to us with time. But this process – and this is where I think Fraser’s intuition is right on – can be characterized by the fact that, in the past 20 years, we’ve experienced a twofold liberalization: economic (or what’s commonly called neoliberalism) and cultural; the latter being a liberalization reflected in the fact that, for example, while unequal and discriminatory practices still exist, they can now be combated much more effectively, so that inequality due to discrimination has on the whole declined. Also, the diversity of socially accepted ways of life and life choices has increased considerably during this period, not least because there are now much stronger institutional forms of recognition available.

The protagonists of cultural liberalization often see themselves as opponents of economic liberalization, even though they’ve effectively contributed to it. Cultural liberalization is in many ways useful to economic liberalization, which can capitalize on its effects: new markets are opened up, innovations and expansions take place that exemplify the thesis of Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello’s famed “New Spirit of Capitalism.” Herein, capitalism maintains its dynamic energy and adaptability by “endogenizing” critical elements, as they put it. I think the recent successes of the authoritarian Right alert all of us to the fact that the oppositional self-image many protagonists of cultural liberalization share may be a self-misunderstanding.

Hark: Yes, I mean, I would agree with you that we can indeed speak of a sort of collusion, a tacit agreement between what you just called cultural liberalization and an economic liberalization, whatever exactly that means, although I’d prefer the term “market radicalization.” And cultural liberalization is about emancipatory struggles. Where I think I’m no longer with you is the associated distinction between struggles for recognition and distributional struggles. That’s an old debate. Back in the 1990s, there was the dispute between Nancy Fraser and Judith Butler over whether it was social or cultural inequality that was the crux. In her essay “Merely Cultural,” Butler tried to undercut this division. Similarly, the French sociologist Michel Wieviorka has repeatedly argued very cogently that when we talk about social inequality we also need to talk about processes of cultural differentiation, about the attribution of cultural characteristics and stereotyping – and that they are inseparable.

The discussion prompted by Donald Trump’s election bears some relation here. Quite a few people said that the minorities with their identity politics helped bring about the election outcome; that the feminists, the queers, the people of color, their struggles over cultural recognition are in part the cause. But there are also always struggles over social issues, over questions of distributional justice (access to education, employment, healthcare, etc.); Black Lives Matter, for example, is not a movement that seeks recognition for the cultural identity of African Americans. On the contrary, it’s about police violence, an issue that’s very material and literally existential.

Moreover, I would describe this collusion between social movements in pursuit of recognition and economic projects as having more to do with appropriation. We see this in the discourse and politics of diversity, which do precisely that: they pick up on differences and package them as a diversity that can then be merchandised. If we look at how that works for gender, for example, that’s emerged as a major issue in the last two or three years: “gender marketing,” the sexualization and gender binarization of toy product lines, etc. Of course those are all exactly the forms in which difference is appropriated and commodified and remolded to commercial specifications. But I’d also agree with you that we have to look at this collusion and locate where they’re actively involved. Still, the tenor of the last few months has largely neglected the question of inequality and instead focused on this or that initiative’s pursuit of recognition – a simplification that strikes me as unhelpful.

Neckel: But the nexus of cultural disregard and social disadvantage also applies to those who, from their perspective, took vengeance, as it were, for the humiliation they think public culture has inflicted on them. Of course, to recognize this sentiment is not to justify it. But it’s evident that authoritarian nationalism appeals to those who are very often both materially disadvantaged and feel culturally deprived. And indeed, they have experienced of loss of prestige, and it is, in part, due to other ways of life having gained prestige. Tragically, those scapegoated for that loss of prestige are also being held responsible for the material decline. This idea is operative within a demographic spectrum ranging from the traditional white working class to the petite bourgeoisie, which is the classic constituency of right-wing extremism and the classic proponent of the idea that cultural liberalization is to be blamed for the repercussions of economic liberalization.

Helke Sander, “Die allseitig reduzierte Persönlichkeit – Redupers,” 1977, film still

Helke Sander, “Die allseitig reduzierte Persönlichkeit – Redupers,” 1977, film still

Hark: Yes, we can see that very clearly in the United States. When people talk about the American white working class, that sector was of course never purely white; it was also African American and Asian American or Mexican American. But now the white part of the working class finds itself in a situation that resembles that which the African-American part has long known: extremely unstable, vulnerable, precarized. But unlike the African-American working class, the white sector thereof has racism at its disposal as a cultural resource. As such, racism is used to interpret these new conditions and to displace experiences of powerlessness, neglect, and humiliation onto the blacks, the foreigners, the Mexican immigrants, etc. In any case, xenophobia, very broadly speaking, seems to come more naturally to working-class whites than does waging a class struggle.

So racism is something that the whites who have been left behind or feel like they’ve been left behind still possess as a shared cultural resource. And as such, it is also, we should note, an identity politics. What does that mean for us as critical social scientists though? If we believe, and I certainly do, that we should actually take this experience of precarization and the resulting anxieties etc. seriously on the level of emotion, of affect, of how people subjectively experience and perceive what’s happening to them, and not just tell them, “you’re falling for some kind of ideological delusion,” we then also need to ask: who is now granted opportunities to make his or her anxiety, his or her experience of humiliation and indignity heard? If the answer to this were “everyone,” then African Americans in the United States, queers all over the world, and many other marginalized groups would have had the right for decades, or for centuries, really, to indulge in authoritarian and resentment-driven politics and to scapegoat someone or other.

The concept of right-wing populism is, for now, an initial attempt to get a grasp of these dynamic processes, but we’re going to have to think harder about how exactly to describe that. Others have called it “authoritarian nationalism.” In this regard, I am interested in the concept of “nativist politics” – or, that’s to say, political platforms that privilege those claiming to have been there first and now oppose the immigration of others or the claims of minorities. Back in the 1940s, the American sociologist Ralph Linton defined “nativism” as any conscious and organized attempt on the part of members of a society to revive or maintain selected aspects of their culture.

Neckel: Sure, yes, that’s something the Right has always done.

Hark: Exactly, and perhaps this is another point where the politics of gender plays a central role: during the run-up to the US elections, I watched a report on men in the Rust Belt who, because of industrial decline in this region, were retraining to be medical assistants. Not unlike here in Germany, it’s primarily the second cities and rural areas that are underserved by the health care system. The report portrayed some of the men as being able to accept this change, but the majority as having no way of reconciling it with their own idea of masculinity. They thought, ok, so we’re taking this retraining course because at least it’s paid work. But they all pinned their hopes on Trump being elected and bringing back the steel and auto industries – which, needless to say, is absurd, it’s not going to happen. But be that as it may, these men are apparently not capable of developing different understandings of themselves as men, of generating new male identities – ones which would allow them to work, say, in a care-giving profession. Instead they have put their faith in the racist politics of an autocrat.

Neckel: White workers have the cultural instrument of racism at their disposal, as you’ve put it. And now their problem is that not only does this cultural instrument no longer garner public recognition but it’s even met with institutional disapproval.

Hark: Yes, exactly, that’s an important point.

Neckel: And the institutions that do this to them are regarded as traitors to their interests: “Washington,” “the EU,” “the elites.” The question is: How do you overcome this impasse? How do you, say, separate the legitimacy of material interests from a claim to cultural prestige that’s based on the expected subordination of other groups?

Hark: We must take a very close look at these processes, these shifts, and try to decode them. Yet does that also mean that we need to listen to those who – in the German context – vote for the AfD? Or those who join the xenophobic marches of (anti-Islam movement) Pegida in Dresden? I think we do, but decidedly not in a sense of fraternizing with these attitudes. As sociologists, and no less as democrats, we must try to understand how attitudes are articulated and why their articulation takes this particular form. But we also need to examine how, for example, parties like the AfD don’t just pick up on these sentiments, they appropriate and exploit them. Let’s look at the AfD’s spokespeople. For one, they don’t even remotely hail from these precarized strata. Since we’re in Berlin, let’s consider, for a moment, who the AfD’s leading local candidates in the upcoming elections are: there’s the senior prosecutor (in charge of the deportation of migrants whose applications for asylum have been rejected), there’s a judge, there are professors … i.e., members of the country’s cultural and intellectual elites who are doing their part to push these policies. It’s important for us to understand how these alliances function, neoreactionary parties and movements harness anxiety and precarization for their nativist purposes.

Neckel: But, to put it provocatively, the AfD is showing us how it’s done. Its leadership is drawn from a reactionary bourgeois counter-elite that’s spent years waiting in the wings until the right opportunity for them to intervene politically came along. These people located their pivotal issues in the Euro and the refugee crisis and then gradually shifted from an economically liberalist and socially conservative position toward an ethno-nationalist politics. What I mean is that this reactionary counter-elite was able to forge an alliance between the lower and petit-bourgeois classes, which make up the great majority of its electoral base, and the right-wing bourgeoisie, which has felt marginalized in its own milieu since Angela Merkel came to power. This alliance was made possible by the pretense that the AfD was where the lower classes left behind by society converged with the culturally ostracized parts of the bourgeoisie. But the rise of the authoritarian Right might also be an opportunity for the Left to identify an antagonist that would destroy the very basis on which we sort out our differences.

Hark: I would agree with that narrative. The Right, you might say, has effectively succeeded in forming the unity front. Like many others, I reread Peter Weiss’s “Aesthetics of Resistance” over the past few months with a view to this very question: how can an alliance against fascism – in Weiss, this means an alliance of communists and social democrats – be secured? Historically, as we all know, it didn’t hold, and fascism came to power. Perhaps we’ve now reached a situation where the Left needs to escalate the contradictions while also thinking about how to form these alliances and how to get from the individual particularities to a new …

Neckel: We!

Hark: Yes, a new “we”! What might that look like? It would have to be a “we” – and this is important – that doesn’t once again marginalize and negate particularities yet that also doesn’t take the other side’s bait. But where’s the working-class leader who might embody this new “we”? Let’s take France; Marine Le Pen has had some success in embodying it in a specific, i.e., racist way, presenting herself to French women as the one who will defend secularism, feminism, equality, emancipation, as the last guardian of laïcité and all it means for women against the medieval Islamic hordes who threaten to overrun Europe and victimize “our” women. Meanwhile, the Left has no roster of candidates who would be capable of bringing these groups in and embodying the new we without resorting to racism or sexism as well. We have yet to find answers to these questions, both on the level of substance and in terms of people who would stand for it.

Neckel: But we – this new “we” – still have shared problems that have been allowed to fester, helping to enable the nationalist Right to build such widespread support for its politics. We need to find a way to discuss them without creating an atmosphere of suspicion or unspoken accusation. Let me mention just two of these problems. One is the balance between openness and closure in modern societies. A blanket embrace of openness and skeptical view of closure of any kind is the de facto leftist position, which I believe we’ll need to rethink. By having become almost unconditional supporters of ever-greater openness, we’ve effectively been partisans of a globalization that has numerous negative effects that we’re probably the last to feel.

The other problem I see is that a normative relativism has become widespread among the Left. It invites the charge that the “we” we want to form abides by the values it professes solely when that’s to its own advantage. To my mind it was an emblematic betrayal when, a few months ago, a delegation of the red-green coalition government in Sweden, the self-proclaimed “world’s first feminist government,” traveled to Tehran to meet representatives of the Iranian state – and then the minister of trade and her staff bowed to the morals of their hosts and wore floor-length coats and headscarves.

Eager to avoid being “Islamophobic,” we’ve too often foregone an entirely valid critique of a religion that’s manifestly pretty resistant to secularization, creating an opportunity for the nationalist Right to voice this critique and appeal to principles that should in fact be ours. These include the secular character of the state, and the equality of the sexes, including the performative equality of bodies, which is to say, the equal right to physical self-expression. To be simplistic for a moment, the Left has not infrequently been the advocate of the headscarf, while letting down those who really stand up for our values, like the Peshmerga’s women’s brigades, which have taken up arms against male enemies who would enslave them. Since the 1990s, critics of Islamization have been ostracized by the Left. And seeing the many people around the world who joined the March for Science in recent weeks should also have reminded us of the value of sociological studies of migration that the Left was completely oblivious to in the public debate over the arrival of refugees; the insight, for example, that most migrant movements are driven by push as well as pull factors. Instead, the Left allowed refugees and migrants to become pawns in an economy of public affects.

Hark: That was a question that came out of the infamous New Year’s Eve assaults in Cologne: what might a non-racist anti-sexist critique look like that’s also an anti-racist non-sexist critique? And that’s taking only these two isms into account. On the other hand, the only alternative I have as a critical social scientist is to look at how certain forms of male dominance collide, for example, with religion, or rather, with a specific interpretation of religion. For instance: Islam isn’t to blame, but rather a certain interpretation of Islam and the practices that grow out of that interpretation, which then fuse; how they form an alliance, or however we choose to describe it, with a certain patriarchal notion of male honor, of a woman’s worth, etc. Finding a way out of these stalemates, which are in part produced by the media, and generating precise descriptions that embrace neither false universalisms nor false relativisms and aren’t blind to the position from which they’re articulated, that’s where the challenge lies. As Achille Mbembe argues in his book “Sortir de la grande nuit,” what’s needed is a thinking of responsibility that takes into account the speaker’s own position. So when, say, Alice Schwarzer takes the stage and portrays the perpetrators of Cologne as the vanguard of the Islamist Sharia brigades without reflecting on the fact that she speaks from a position of relative power, then we have a problem.

Neckel: The question is whether progressive leftist movements are actually well advised to operate with taboos and strict rules of conduct. That’s always been the characteristic of conservative politics: enshrining conventions as valuable in their own right, as normative. And the leftist critique has always emphasized that conventions are mere agreements that must be called in question. We might have maneuvered ourselves into a situation where, with the best of intentions, we’ve in a way produced a leftist revival of a classic pattern of the Right, provoking reactions of truculence and transgression for transgression’s sake – a reversal of roles, as it were.

Hark: Yes, and that brings us back to the discussion of the feminist dilemmas with which we began, where we noted the need to revisit our own politics with a critical view to which kinds of potentially problematic alliances feminism has entered with social dynamics and political attitudes. And that’s doubly true because we find ourselves in a situation in which we observe that other social forces are regrouping and trying to change the world their way. In that sense, although Europe needs to be “provincialized,” as Dipesh Chakrabarty has put it, we’re actually called upon now to spell out certain European values anew as well as to defend them! In Poland and Hungary, we currently have two EU countries in which academic freedom and freedom of the press are already under massive pressure. Budapest’s Central European University will very likely have to go into exile.

Neckel: I think we’re faced with political processes that can unleash unforeseen dangers: the rise of nationalist parties and the recent abrupt political shifts – Trump’s election, Brexit, Erdogan’s autocracy, similar developments in Hungary and Poland – confront us with the prospect of a conceivable discontinuity. Not the discontinuity of the revolution the Left long hoped to see but the discontinuity of reaction and catastrophe. We’re members of a generation that grew up amid the experience of social continuities. The German Autumn of 1977 may have been one moment when people didn’t know where things were headed. Back then the Left found ways out of the quandary …

Hark: Yes, the Left did find a way, no? It was this time that gave us Die Tageszeitung and the Green Party, among many other things. Who’s to say what these likewise pressing times will bring?

Translation: Gerrit Jackson