Book review: Stranger Anxiety

Is assimilating the other as xenophobic as excluding him? Tabish Khair explores the link between xenophobia and capitalism in this new book.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:February 6, 2016 12:48 am
A refugee passes a baby from a train window to a boy, upon their arrival at the transit center for Syrian refugees near the northern Macedonian village of Tabanovce, before continuing their journey to Serbia. AP A refugee passes a baby from a train window to a boy, upon their arrival at the transit center for Syrian refugees near the northern Macedonian village of Tabanovce, before continuing their journey to Serbia. AP


Title: The New Xenophobia

Author: Tabish Khair
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 220
Price: Rs 495

The spectacle of Donald Trump espousing an unprecedented and open campaign against Muslims, and the rise of the right in Europe, beg reflection. Tabish Khair, who was born and raised in small-town Bihar and now teaches in Denmark, is an intriguing guide to these political developments. The New Xenophobia is a breezy little book with one central thesis. Xenophobia has been part of the human condition, though as Khair points out, the stranger we fear is not just any stranger, but a particular kind of stranger.

What he calls “Old Xenophobia” constructed strangers under the sign of difference: the strangers are a threat because they are construed as different; the premium is on emphasising their difference. Paradoxically, the old xenophobia has a place for recognising difference. In the “New Xenophobia”, by contrast, “the stranger remains a stranger but is not allowed to exhibit their [sic] sign of difference.” In the old xenophobia, there are no fantasies of assimilating strangers; in the new xenophobia, the official fantasy is that of assimilating strangers. But, in a strange way, this is even more xenophobic because the strangers have to now conform and erase differences.

Marx had argued that the difference between feudal and capitalist exploitation was that the former exploitation was visible, while the latter was rendered invisible by abstractions. Similarly, with new xenophobia: it is more invisible, more abstract, works less visibly on bodies than the old xenophobia and seeks to erase differences. But its effects are similar. Khair quotes a rather insightful remark from a piece in the The Guardian, “No one’s racist nowadays. But somehow racism still seems to find its targets.” It is this phenomenon that Khair explores. His explanation is the following. The new xenophobia has much to do with capitalism.

Capitalism requires unlimited mobility of capital. At the same time, it requires the regulation and restrictions on labour. This is, in part, due to the requirements of running a welfare state. So contrary to the idea that commerce dissolves boundaries, capitalist nation-states require the erection of new boundaries. These will not be couched in the traditional language of xenophobia, but they are xenophobic nevertheless. But — and here is another contradiction — labour will seek new opportunities, and sometimes the maintenance of welfare states requires new labour. European nation-states are not prepared for this logic; they want the benefits of capitalism without bearing the burdens of migration. So the new xenophobia is in some ways more paranoid: it is caught in the grip of an abstract nameless fear, behind which lies the power of capitalism.

Islam is a particular problem for this new xenophobia. Migration can “work” only if it is rendered totally invisible and abstract; there are no signs of strangers within our midst. New xenophobia is all about reducing the strangeness of the stranger. Islam, with its visible signs, resists this erasure of differences. It does not, in Khair’s words, hide itself; it resists the abstract structures of identity that the modern capitalist world wants to impose them. Getting rid of the burqa has less to do with gender justice, but more to do with making the migrant invisible, assimilating them into the logic of abstract capital. Islam, in this view, is a threat to the abstract homogenising logic of capital, and is, therefore, singled out.

In the Middle East itself, the regimes are caught in a contradiction. On the one hand, their regimes collaborate with global capital; on the other hand, they claim to provide a symbolic alternative to capitalism. Saudi Arabia was a keystone in the American order, but insisted on this alternative religious order. Within these competing logics, you could have only a clash of Islamists and capitalists: it is difficult for any other kind of politics to emerge.

Khair also disputes the claims of Steven Pinker who argues that there has been a reduction in violence. He argues that Pinker’s definition of violence needs to be expanded: it should not be limited to physical violence only. If we think of violence as happening when in Judith Butler’s words, “we are acting on another, putting others at risk, causing the other damage, threatening to expunge the other,” then we realise violence is at the heart of the capitalist system. It may not require eliminationist genocide. But it does require a constant erasure of difference, the need to swallow labour into a structure of assimilation. Khair’s arguments are suggestive, even if a bit elusive, though readers will baulk at the fact that its construction of Islam mirrors that of the new xenophobe: as a religion uniquely resistant to the abstract logic of modernity. Whether Khair means to make this strong claim is not entirely clear, but it does set up as binary a contest between Islam and capital.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.