Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle
The world is facing a period of dramatic social and political change. Perceived crises, combined with the intensification of social inequality have caused discontent to grow to such an extent that political commentators speak of an “existential crisis” or express fear of Europe returning to its “dark past”. As reactionary, anti-immigration and neo-nationalist sentiments spread like wildfire, leading intellectuals argue that we are entering a postliberal age – an age marked by regression (Nachtwey 2016; Geiselberger 2017) and anger (Mishra 2017). Against the backdrop of the political turmoil spanning from Trump’s America, to the UK’s Brexit struggles, to the re-election of Modi in India, to Viktor Orbán’s unchallenged success in Hungary, to Salvini’s grip on Italy, to the support for Bolsanaro in Brazil – to name just a few prominent examples – anthropologists across the globe have been taken aback by the scale of the political changes. Because of their closeness to people’s lived experiences, anthropologists would be in a prime position to deliver crucial insights into the processes of political micro-mobilisation propelling these changes. Yet, due to the reluctance to study groups they cannot sympathise with, anthropological studies on right-wing and reactionary cultural practices are few and far between, or, as Hugh Gusterson (2017: 2) recently put it, “still embryonic”.
In the light of the recent developments however, anthropologists have woken up to the fact that they can no longer afford to overlook the backlash against established political and cultural norms. The countless panels, roundtable discussions, blog posts and special issues dedicated to the rise of the far-right in recent years show that the discipline has now well and truly woken up to the fact that it needs to develop a new repertoire of methodological, ethical and conceptual tools to be able to ethnographically capture the social worlds of people who support right-wing and neo-nationalist parties. Recent publications mirror a wave of growing anthropological interest in the topic as well as expanded reflections on ethical questions that arise from studying “unlikeable others” (Pasieka 2019). We see our own on-going research as part of these attempts. While all of us have spent many years working with or researching refugees, we have recently “changed sides” to study the lifeworlds of people who see the presence of migrants and refugees as a threat to their values and ways of life. By studying the lifeworlds of ordinary men and women supporting exclusionary political ideas on the ground, we attempt to come to a more nuanced understanding of the motives and causes of reactionary practices.
In this reading list we aim to give an overview over some of the key anthropological engagements with far-right, (neo-) nationalist or authoritarian movements. Despite the often repeated mantra that ethnographies of the political “other” form an intellectual wasteland, with this blog post we hope to show that anthropologists do not have to start from scratch, but that they can build on a robust body of literature. Whilst not claiming to be comprehensive, we have chosen a range of books and articles we found particularly helpful, important or illuminating. For this reading list, we especially looked at work that paved the way for more recent engagements with the far right and tried to include work that touches upon some of the most pertinent questions anthropologists have grappled with. While we could have started the list earlier – for example with Ernest Gellner’s (1983) path breaking Nations and Nationalism, or Bruce Kapferer’s (1988) Legends of People, Myths of State – we have dated its beginning in the 1990s and early 2000s, when there was a pronounced rise in anthropological interest in this topic.
Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other (1991) by Susan Harding, in Social Research 58 (2).
Harding’s iconic article is one of the earliest and most elaborate engagements with the question of how anthropologists can study the social worlds of people whose worldviews they do not share. Importantly, she asks how anthropologists have contributed to the production of the figure of the reactionary as a “repugnant cultural other”. By looking into the history of religious fundamentalism in the United States she shows that such figures are not self-evident, but the product of modern discursive practices. Harding suggests reading the emergence of these figures as an intersection of discursive practices by interrogating representation itself – an approach she also uses in other work on fundamentalism and millennialism (Harding 2000; Stewart & Harding 1999).
The New Racism in Europe: A Sicilian Ethnography (1997) by Jeffrey Cole. Cambridge University Press.
Based on long term field research in Palermo, Cole’s book offers an important early insight into the politics of race and racism in Europe. By zooming in on everyday responses to African and Asian migrants, he establishes class variations in anti-immigration sentiments. Cole contrasts his findings from Sicily with the intense politicisation of migration and race in Italy’s North, highlighting the regional differences in economy and politics. Long before the current wave of anthropological interest in these issues, Cole suggested that anthropologists needed to pay more attention to “the experiences, hopes, and fears of working people” to capture the tensions underwriting liberal democracies across the world (Cole 1997: 131).
Integral Europe: Fast-Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neofascism (2000) by Douglas Holmes. Princeton University Press.
In his ground-breaking work on the rise of the right in Europe in the 1990s, Holmes offers important conceptual insights into the dark undercurrents marking modern Europe’s social and political landscape. Through multi-sited ethnographic research with politicians and activists that stretches from northern Italy, to the hallways of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and Brussels, to the East End of London, he analyses the social and intellectual contexts of neo-nationalism in Europe. Holmes makes an important conceptual point when he argues that support for right-wing parties never appears out of the blue. These parties successfully tap into established traditions of anti-liberal thought and the alternative theories of society they present.
White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (2000) by Ghassan Hage. Pluto Press.
Whilst not directly related to right-wing nationalism, White Nation is essential reading for anthropologists attempting to unpack the white supremacist imaginaries underwriting much of the current political backlash. By examining the ways Australians imagine the national space and their relation to it, Hage reveals the social structures underlying the fantasy of Australia as a white nation. What makes this book so relevant for anthropological engagements with reactionary cultural practices, is that Hage focuses on the ways Australians experience multiculturalism, whiteness and supremacy. Importantly, he urges anthropologists to critically reflect on their own roles and resist the temptation of “becoming a commentator on a clearly media-fed ‘look-at-the-racist freak show’” (Hage 2000: 20). His book is an early call for the importance of experience-near perspectives on contentious political ideologies and movements – an approach that can also be found in his more recent work on the links between the extractive nature of racism and the environmental catastrophe we are facing (Hage 2017).
Neo-Nationalism in Europe and Beyond (2006) edited by Andre Gingrich and Marcus Banks. Berghahn.
This edited volume forms a helpful introduction into the anthropological study of neo-nationalism and the methodological conundrums it produces. The authors aim at addressing a broader audience, unpacking the term “neo-nationalism” and highlighting the important role anthropology can play in understanding reactionary political movements. The ten contributions provide illuminating engagements with the surge of right-wing populist parties Europe faced at the turn of the millennium and its links to the increasing power of the European Union. The book offers important comparative perspectives into the topic, by linking developments in Europe to wider global political dynamics.
Ethnographies of the Far Right (2007) edited by Kathleen Blee. Special Issue in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36 (2).
Even though this special issue is not directed at anthropologists per se, we believe that it needs to be included in this reading list. Sociologist Kathleen Blee, known from her previous and much recognized work on racism and gender in the Ku Klux Klan (1991) as well on contemporary hate movements (2002), echoes anthropological interests when she stresses the importance of close-up examinations of far-right activists. She argues that such ethnographic engagements are key to understanding how far-right groups recruit members and reach out to the general public. The collection of articles featured in this special issue demonstrate the important intellectual work ethnographic theorisations of extremist movements perform.
Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum (2007) by Atrayee Sen. Indiana University Press.
This engaging book offers a rare insight into the role of women in nationalist and extremist movements. In her in-depth ethnography of a low-income, working-class slum of Bombay, Sen carves out the lives of the women and children of the Shiv Sena, one of the most radical and violent Hindu nationalist parties that dominated Indian politics throughout the 90s and into the present. She makes visible the Sena women’s reasons for organizing themselves along paramilitary lines, arguing that it enabled them to create a distinct social identity, form networks of material support, and offer protection from male violence. By moving debates about the far-right beyond its Western and male-dominated focus, this book forms a crucial intervention.
Conversations with a Polish Populist: Tracing Hidden Histories of Globalization, Class, and Dispossession in Postsocialism (and beyond) (2009) by Don Kalb. American Ethnologist 36 (2).
We chose this article as it offers a great discussion of the role of class and the liberal paradigm in the success of populist parties. In the article Kalb investigates the rise of populist, neo-nationalist sensibilities in Wroclaw, Poland. He argues that the increased spread of such sentiments needs to be regarded as a defensive response by working-class people to the silences imposed upon them by liberal hegemonic practices. Unpacking the particularity of the Polish path to populist paranoia, he suggests that scholars should not focus solely on parties and elites, but on the lived subtexts of social and existential insecurity propelling people to vote for the far-right. By focusing on the story of one polish populist he draws attention to a “particular hidden history of worker solidarities and their dramatically declining power, prestige, and opportunities in post socialist Poland” (Kalb 2009: 218).
The Insecure American: How We Got There and What We Should Do About It (2010) edited by Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Besteman. University of California Press.
This edited volume provides an excellent introduction into the affective dimensions underlying the rise of the right in the United States. The book manages to capture the zeitgeist of American society as a deeply insecure one, marked by “a social, political, and economic environment that makes us all less secure” (Gusterson & Besteman 2010: 29). The engaging and well-written contributions range from Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s personal account of the declining quality of the care her parents received in a middle-class nursing home in Baltimore, to Setha Low’s partly auto-ethnographical story of her sisters’ recent move into one of Americas growing gated communities, to Jane Collin’s account of Wal-Mart’s shocking business strategy that translates into chronic poverty for its employees. We chose the book for the reading list as it paints powerful ethnographic pictures of the concrete effects neoliberal changes can have on people’s daily lives and of how these changes intersect with the domain of the political.
Headlines of Nation, Subtexts of Class: Working-class Populism and the Return of the Repressed in Neoliberal Europe (2011) edited by Don Kalb and Gabor Halmai. Berghahn.
Like Kalb’s article mentioned above, this edited volume delivers crucial insights to the role of class in right-wing populist parties’ success. Focusing on working-class people and the ways they are affected by global processes of neoliberalisation, it encourages anthropologists to bring class back into their engagements with politics and nationalism. The different contributions highlight significant differences between Central and Western European settings and create a vivid portrait of “how working-class Europeans have come to understand and respond to the disastrous consequences that have followed the implementation of neoliberal policies” (George Baca, in this volume: 194).
The Management of Hate: Nation, Affect, and the Governance of Right-wing Extremism in Germany (2016) by Nitzan Shoshan. Princeton University Press.
This book heralds the start of a wave of more recent anthropological engagements with the far-right. Based on research amongst young neo-Nazis in Berlin, Shoshan illuminates the lives and backgrounds of right-wing extremists. He explores the ways the state performs the management of these young extremists’ hate “as an immense project of affective governance” (Shoshan 2016: 264). Shoshan points to this management of hate as being rooted in Germany’s particular past, arguing that the suppression of this past and the ideology of National Socialism gave rise to other modes of nationalism. In paying attention to the politics of affect, the book initiates an important discussion about the figure of the reactionary as a “dangerous other”.
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016) by Arlie Russell Hochschild. New Press.
While written by a sociologist, this masterfully crafted book offers crucial insights into the lifeworlds of the supporters of reactionary parties. Based on in-depth ethnographic research amongst supporters of the conservative right and the Tea Party Movement in Louisiana, Hochschild explores the emotion underlying politics. She uses affect as a core tool to explore how “the other side” (ibid: 135) perceives the world. Hochschild tries to bridge what she calls the “empathy wall” to truly understand the people she is working with from their own perspectives, taking seriously their choices, feelings and lives. This approach and the well- written accounts of the life worlds of Tea party members make this book an invaluable source for ethnographic engagements with the figure of the reactionary.
The Hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, Gesture, Spectacle (2016) by Kira Hall & Donna Meryl Goldstein & Matthew Bruce Ingram. In HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (2).
We included this article in the list as we found the socio-linguist perspective it adds to current debates on the rise of the right to be important and thought-provoking. The authors focus on Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy as the creation of an almost comedic event. They analyse his use of bodily expressions and gestures, such as his iconic “pistol hand gesture”, or the expressions he used to mock political opponents. They claim that Trump’s success needs to be viewed in the light of his entertainment skills. The authors follow neo-marxist scholars in describing the political formations marking late capitalism as “fetishizing style over content” (Hall et al. 2016: 92). The article is followed by a range of responses, which were published in the same journal some months later (2017, volume 7, number 1). These responses are as insightful and interesting as the original article. We therefore recommend reading the article in combination with the discussion it provoked.
Overheated Underdogs: Civilizational Analysis and Migration on the Danube-Tisza Interfluve (2016) by Chris Hann. History & Anthropology 27 (5).
Based on Hylland-Eriksen’s (2016) concept of “overheating”, Hann observes how rural Hungarians are being pushed into a marginalised position in an era of late Western capitalism. He argues that this marginalisation contributed to the resentments towards migrants in 2015 – resentments Hann describes as “agrarian populism”. The article is an important reminder of how crucial it is to deploy a historical angle in the analysis of right-wing populist sentiments. Hann shows that settlers in the rural areas of the Danube-Tisza Interfluve were exposed to economic hardships in the 19th and 20th century. During the socialist period, the area prospered modestly from agricultural wine production, but moving towards social inequality soon. Transformation processes in the 1990s led to the privatisation of nearly all farms and struggles to adjust to market competition, leaving farmers without significant opportunities to secure their livelihoods within the agricultural sector. Hann argues that it is against the backdrop of these historical changes that rural Hungarians became attracted to right-wing populist resentments and promises.
Fascism as a Style of Life. Community Life and Violence in a Neofascist Movement in Italy (2017) by Maddalena Gretel Cammelli. Focaal, Issue 79.
We included this article by Cammelli as it is one of the rare anthropological engagements of the far-right that is based on thick ethnographic description. She centres her work on the performance of fascist traditions in contemporary Italy by analysing community life in the neo-fascist movement CasaPound. She explores how members of CasaPoud create an experience of community beyond political endeavours, by establishing certain neo-fascist infrastructures such as pubs, bookstores, restaurants, shared housing and music bands. In doing so, Cammelli shows how right-wing ideology becomes interwoven with people’s everyday lives.
Taking Far-Right Claims Seriously and Literally: Anthropology and the Study of Right-Wing Radicalism (2017) by Agnieszka Pasieka. Slavic Review 76 (1).
We found Pasieka’s work (also see Pasieka 2019) a very helpful point of departure as it manages to capture the moral dilemmas involved in conducting research with far-right activists without normalising their violent and extremist worldviews. In this article she questions the dualistic schemes that often underwrite public debates – such as the urban/rural, the educated/non-educated and the western/eastern divide – as explanations for a rising right-wing populism. Pasieka calls for more profound anthropological contributions to these public debates by rethinking the meaning of empathy. She sees this as an important step to challenging moral delineations that might restrict anthropologists from working with far-right activists and therefore render insights into their lived realities invisible.
From Brexit to Trump: Anthropology and the Rise of Nationalist Populism (2017) by Hugh Gusterson. American Ethnologist 44 (2).
This article is part of a collection of essays on Brexit and Trump published in American Ethnologist. While all the contributions to this forum are interesting, we found Gusterson’s particularly revealing. He raises an important point in his critique of the “blue-collar narrative” prevalent in the media to explain the success of the right in the United States. He suggests that anthropologists need to move beyond this simplified explanatory model of Donald Trump’s success, arguing that the role of wealthy voters and the petty bourgeoisie should also be examined. In order to fully understand rising populisms, he calls for an expansion of anthropological engagement with “the conservative Other” (Gusterson 2017: 213).
Nationalist Responses to the Crisis in Europe: Old and New Hatreds (2018) by Catherine Thorleifsson. Routledge.
Guided by the question of how supporters of right-wing parties perceive themselves, Thorleifsson conducted multi-sited ethnographic research amongst supporters of right-wing parties in the United Kingdom, Norway and Hungary. Aware about the risk of essentialising the people she worked with, she largely avoids the term “extremists”, when referring to the supporters of right-wing parties. Her leading argument is that rising populism should be analysed against the backdrop of neoliberal globalisation, but that it cannot be reduced to a single cause. Like Hann, Thorleifsson follows Hylland-Eriksen’s concept of the “overheating effects” (Thorleifsson 2016: 4) of globalisation to consider the interplay between economy, displacement, culture and identity and the attempts of right-wing parties in “cooling” down these effects.
Collaborating with the Radical Right: Scholar-Informant Solidarity and the Case for an Immoral Anthropology (2019) by Benjamin Raphael Teitelbaum. Current Anthropology 60 (3).
This article and the heated debates it provoked are essential reading for anthropologists attempting to gain a deeper understanding of the ethical challenges involved in conducting research with right-wing extremists. It is a great example of the dangerous political territories anthropologists can enter when they over-empathize with their research participants. In the article Teitelbaum aims to expand anthropological understandings of scholar-informant solidarity – as based on trust and friendship – to collaboration, reciprocity and advocacy, also with informants of “the bad sort” (Teitelbaum 2019: 415). He insists on calling his research participants (anti-immigrant and neo-fascist activists) “nationalists” – the term they use to describe themselves – even though this downplays the violent and authoritarian worldviews they harbour. Teitelbaum’s suggestion that anthropologists need to prioritise “research efficacy over moral integrity”, have given rise to a number of deeply critical, yet highly illuminating responses by other anthropologists, which are published in the same issue.
Forging an Anthropology of Neoliberal Fascism (2019) by Adrienne Pine. Public Anthropologist 1 (1).
This recent article offers an insightful reflection on the usefulness of fascism as an analytical category for anthropologists. Pine explores the interconnection between nationalism and neoliberalism, describing neoliberalism as a breeding ground for fascism (Pine 2019: 39). Her ethnographic account of young Hondurans in US-American immigration detention centres points to the structural racism and repression these young men are confronted with, which Pine considers as a practiced fascism. She calls for anthropological solidarity with structurally disadvantaged people.
By Way of Conclusion
Bringing this blog post to a close, we take the liberty to make a few concluding observations. We want to emphasise again that our reading list is by no means comprehensive. We have left out many interesting and thought-provoking articles and books. Our list represents only a selection of articles we believe to be representative for the main themes and questions anthropologists dealing with the far-right have been preoccupied with. A very good attempt to summarise these recurring themes can also be found in William Mazzarella’s (2019) recent review article for the Annual Review of Anthropology.
What we take away from our own engagement with the anthropological literature on reactionary cultural practices is the persuasion that we need to stop claiming that the far-right forms an anthropological wasteland. Secondly, and connected to this point, we believe that anthropologists need to stop exceptionalising the study of the far-right. While conducting ethnographic research with people whose worldviews researchers do not share comes with its own set of challenges, anthropologists do not have to reinvent the wheel but can draw on established epistemological traditions that allow them to critically reflect on their research relationships. Finally, we agree with Heath Cabot’s (2019) recent suggestion that anthropologists need to resist the tendency to frame their research subjects in terms of a “crisis” – often an attempt to make their work look more important, relevant or sexy. We believe that framing the current political backlash as a crisis runs the risk of playing into the temporal regimes that crises harbour. The intense focus on the present inherent in frameworks of crisis often comes at the expense of voices, experiences and perspectives from the past.
By describing the racist and exclusionary practices inherent in the present political landscape as a “crisis”, anthropologists risk exceptionalising these practices and silencing the voices of people who have pointed out the normalization of white supremacist sentiments in contemporary politics for a long time. Often, these people are exactly the ones who have had to bear the brunt of the backlash against multiculturalism and diversity. This tendency can be seen in the almost complete disregard in the literature on the far-right for the important lessons it could learn from scholars of colour and critical race, who have studied exclusionary practices for many decades. While these studies might not have explicitly framed their research in terms of an engagement with the far-right, they have delivered crucial insights into the ways supremacist and racialized ideas are made and unmade in the everyday. We mentioned Ghassan Hage’s work as one example, but the list could be extended indefinitely, stretching back to the work of Frantz Fanon (1986), Etienne Balibar (1991) and bell hooks (1995). We therefore want to end our reading list with two publications we found particularly helpful for understanding the everyday processes of racialisation underlying the rise of the far-right.
A Phenomenology of Whiteness (2007) by Sara Ahmed. Feminist Theory 8 (2).
We regard this text as key reading for any anthropologist attempting to understand the white supremacist imaginaries underlying the rise of the right. Ahmed suggests treating whiteness as an experience which is marked by the very disappearance of whiteness as a category. This disappearance, she stresses, is at the heart of whiteness as a worldly phenomenon. By approaching the question of whiteness from a phenomenological angle, Ahmed turns the focus towards the ways whiteness is lived and forms a background to experience. From a phenomenological perspective, whiteness “could be described as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space” (Ahmed 2007: 150). It is precisely in pointing out the ways certain bodies are entitled to take up more space than others that Ahmed’s text offers a crucial guidance in understanding how white supremacist ideas are anchored in the realm of the everyday, rather than in the domain of the exceptional.
Anthropology of White Supremacy (2019), edited by Aisha M. BelisoDe Jesús and Jemima Pierre. American Ethnologist (online first version).
This recently published special section is a crucial wake-up call for anthropologists to take its own white supremacist legacies more seriously and engage in a more thorough critique of its role in modern anthropological regimes of knowledge production. In pointing out the various ways anthropologists have eschewed questions about white supremacist sentiments in their own work and discipline, this special issue performs important groundwork. It is a vital reminder that anthropological engagements with the current reactionary backlash cannot ignore the racial hierarchies and supremacist imaginaries underlying its success. The authors stress that “rather than regarding white supremacy as representative of extremist racist groups (as exist throughout Europe and the Americas), we understand white supremacy to be infused in all structures of global power” (Beliso-De Jesús & Pierre 2019).
Balibar, Etienne. 1991. Is there a Neo-Racism? In Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, edited by Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, 17-28. London, New York: Verso.
Blee, Kathleen M. 1991. Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Blee, Kathleen M. 2002. Inside Organized Racism: Women and Men in the Hate Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Cabot, Heath. 2019. “The Business of Anthropology and the European Refugee Regime.” American Ethnologist 46 (3): 261-275
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2016. Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change. London: Pluto.
Fanon, Frantz. 1986. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.
Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Gusterson, Hugh. 2017. From Brexit to Trump: Anthropology and the Rise of Nationalist Populism. American Ethnologist 44 (2): 209-214.
Geiselberger, Heinrich, ed. 2017. The Great Regression. Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press.
Hage, Ghassan. 2017. Is Racism an Environmental Threat? Cambridge: Polity Press.
Harding, Susan Friend. 2000. The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
hooks, bell. 1995. Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Holt & Company.
Kapferer, Bruce. 1988. Legends of People, Myths of State: Violence, Intolerance, and Political Culture in Sri Lanka and Australia. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Mazzarella, William. 2019. The Anthropology of Populism: Beyond the Liberal Settlement. Annual Review of Anthropology 48 (1): 45-60.
Mishra, Pankaj. 2017. Age of Anger: A History of the Present. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Nachtwey, Oliver. 2016. Die Abstiegsgesellschaft – Über das Aufbegehren in der regressiven Moderne. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.
Pasieka, Agnieszka. 2019. Anthropology of the Far-Right: What If We Like the ‘Unlikeable’ Others? Anthropology Today 35 (1): 3-6.
Stewart, Kathleen, and Susan Friend Harding. 1999. Bad Endings: American Apocalypsis. Annual Review of Anthropology 28: 285-310.
Teitelbaum, Benjamin Raphael. 2019. Collaborating with the Radical Right: Scholar-Informant Solidarity and the Case for an Immoral Anthropology. Current Anthropology 60 (3): 414-435.
Thorleifsson, Cathrine. 2018. Nationalist Responses to the Crisis in Europe: Old and New Hatreds. London: Routledge.