Tabish Khair’s The New Xenophobia is a bold effort to examine an increasingly pressing universal phenomenon, which the world has been ignoring as being part of the past. The importance of this work is that it seeks to place what it terms as ‘New’ in the perspective of what was the old xenophobia within the author’s broad concept that ‘Power refers to any imposition, physical or not, of one consciousness upon another’ approvingly quoting Emmanuel Levinas, the French Lithuanian 20th century philosopher, on the nature of violence beyond physical. According to Levinas, if human sensibility can be characterized conceptually, then it must be described in what is most characteristic to it: a continuum of sensibility and affectivity, in other words, sentience and emotion in their interconnection.
This is a well researched and scholarly work, although the language is sometimes archaic. I know of no other work that has so carefully traced the issue under discussion, thus identifying what is increasingly becoming a major challenge for social engineering in a world of growing globalization.
Distinguishing broadly between western civic xenophobia, which he describes as meretricious and an eastern ethnic xenophobia, the latter manifested in the persecution of minorities in Pakistan, and going on to discuss the divide in former Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, and Rwanda the last para of the first chapter crisply sets the theme of the book. With ‘Vampire’ as a recurring acronym the author defines the ‘stranger’: ‘The stranger, like the vampire, has a body that is like “our” body, but not really so … because in some ways s/he is already dead in xenophobic eyes.’
The source of this phenomenon is summarized in the primitive nature of ‘fear’—making clear that at issue is a struggle for power, linked as it is—and this is done persuasively in ‘Capital and New Xenophobia’—directly with capitalism. So while the opening chapter ‘The Making of a Stranger’ concisely summarizes the theme of the book, all issues flagged in this chapter are then addressed variously, individually, and finally together, to help make a case for the theory posited.
The stranger, under the new xenophobia, remains a stranger, but is not allowed to exhibit signs of his/her difference. Thus the author avers that what he terms present-day Islam phobia shares some elements with the older Judea phobia. ‘Muslims are nowadays portrayed as a circumcised people who pray all the time and whose men seduce and control women, Jews were also condemned for exactly these characteristics well into the twentieth century.’ In therefore addressing what he describes as the face off between Islam and the West, the author goes on to contend, ‘Xenophobia, as we have experienced it until recently, always had to define the “body” of the stranger, so that it could be negated, because, as is the case with the vampire, this is a body of deception and difference; it is matter out of place.’ Thus the vampire is an apt generic ‘stranger’ to use to illustrate this, as it is not just a fiction based on facts, but also a fiction rooted in the essential facts of capitalism, as Karl Marx sensed when he repeatedly described capital as a vampire, an invisible, fluid, dead power that lives off the blood of the living.
This contention is intrinsic to the author’s worldview, particularly with the breakdown of physical barriers. Under the title Immigration, High Capitalism, and the Welfare State the applicability of this thesis in a global context is directly addressed: ‘According to a 2006 study carried out by the Berlin Wall Association and the Centre of Contemporary Historical Research, 125 people were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall throughout its entire history. Yet between 1988 and April 2011, 15,551 immigrants died trying to cross Europe’s borders, according to the anti-racist organization, United.’1 In Germany alone, between 1998 and 2000, ‘150 people killed themselves [. . .] because they were due to be deported.’2
In this context the author’s developing theory is brought to bear on the experience of India. ‘Studies of the Partition as well as of later Hindu–Muslim conflicts inevitably illustrate how people who have shared a culture, a past, or even a childhood, found themselves pushed into the position of strangers who had to be combated.’ The book also seeks to explain the phenomenon of farmer suicides in the context of globalization. The ruin of the flourishing indigenous textile industry of Bihar is an example of profiteering by the capitalist ruining his competitor who is projected as the other. My own field observation of the extinction of that industry in parts of Bihar, found, notably in Forbesganj, Araria District the predominance of the name Ansari among Muslims, traditionally the weaver class, where there are no weavers now. The argument is then that albeit the ‘old xenophobia is based on this conception of the strangeness of the stranger, but it is affected by other matters, particularly the rise of classical capitalism, with its increasingly abstract structures of power.’ This also seeks to explain the ‘transformation of Europe’s ancient culture of Judeaphobia to Nazi anti-Semitism.’
The author finds that only about 2 per cent of the world’s population consists of actual migrants and refugees.3 In contrast, floating capital—by definition global—is at least twenty times the value of actual trade, which can be national or global. In effect, the movement of people/labour under globalization is insignificant in comparison to the movement of capital and goods. The author feels that this is something that the most conscientious economists recognize, but fear to stress. He finds a chasm between the globalized space of capitalism’s economic management and the national space of its political and social management.4 This is the central argument of the entire work. According to this hypothesis the political and social management of capital by nation-states involves strategies that either encourages xenophobia or leads to paranoia among the citizens, regardless of what the ostensible position of the state might be on matters racial or religious.
For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the author informs us, the great migratory movements that shaped European history were directed outwards to the Americas and the colonial world, or took place within the continent itself. In the years that followed World War II, this historic pattern was reversed, as a number of European countries tolerated or actively encouraged immigration from the Third World and their former colonies in order to make up for the post-war shortage in unskilled labour.5
Khair seeks to explain the transformation by the evolution of the centuries of colonialism-based early capitalism into production-based classical capitalism. He points to the ‘obvious similarities between racism and nationalism’. He concludes that ‘Xenophobia is thus not an unavoidable natural, almost bodily, reaction; it is always, to some extent or the other, constructed.’ This is demonstrable in present day India, which draws upon the colonial Macaulay heritage in education portraying the Muslim as an invading alien, or victim of the invader through forced ‘conversion’.
The author argues that nationalism creates the half-true myth of a horizontal (and not vertical) division of society which obscures the fact that some continue to live at the cost of many; it not only gets workers to work, but also gets them to consume on capitalist terms. The argument that First World capitalist states do not indulge in much economic protectionism was and is blind to the fact that their ’bourgeoisies’ are in such positions of strength that they stand to gain more by competing on ‘equal terms’ with other bourgeoisies.6 Thus attempts by a Rightist Party like the BJP to keep international capitalists out of India while trying to invite international capital into the country.
The book is particularly strong in examining varied institutions of slavery. It establishes that slavery not only had different forms, but it was also itself one of the forms in which the human body was constituted, and exchanged. So in barter-based and agricultural societies, the human body was a direct and evident source of value, wherewith the human body has also, legally until recently been used as ‘currency’. Slaves as commodities is a feature of slavery only in the practice of capitalism.
Ideas of social struggle, competition, and selection/survival were already rampant in the nineteenth century; they formed the backbone of attempts by the bourgeoisie to justify their own privileges and advantages. Adam Smith has noted, ‘[l]abor was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labor, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased.’7 Labour, in other words, the human body, with all its physical and material aspects, is not something that could be avoided in the early and even the classical (production-based) phases of capitalism. And the manner in which this xenophobia has affected international relations, particularly with neighbours is discussed in the concept of border/contact.
As might be expected, the author’s conclusion is ominous: Globalization—with its highly abstract, free-floating capital and its correspondingly unequal flow of global capital and global labour will inevitably create, particularly so in the absence of global political structures to address the problem, pronounced xenophobic sentiments in national circles, and new xenophobic forms of power and prejudice. But by expanding on the subject of xenophobia the author has perhaps overstated the case thus making that central, with its economic ramifiactions i.e., capitalism, to almost every human activity. The examples of India’s relationship with the Raj, winning Independence yet succumbing to Partition, Bangladesh’s secession from Pakistan, the issues of Kashmir, Kosovo, and East Europe, all will on examination have aspects of the kind of xenophonia discussed, but in none of these cases can it be concluded that it was central. But this is a matter of opinion, and the book scores questioning established theory. And there can be no question on the author’s conclusion and the weight of his argument—that to meet the challenge we must consciously build a fairer society.
Tabish Khair helps fill a void in political and economic thinking, clearly flagging the possible dangers of unbridled globalization through an unfettered exercise of authority stemming from economic ascendancy. The work has a special relevance to India, placing developments within the country in the clear context of global development.
Wajahat Habibullah is former Chairman, National Commission of Minorities.