At the peak of Clinton-era optimism, sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein went against the tide. Rejecting what back then was a widely shared belief in globalization as a benign process debouching into a borderless cosmopolitan future, Wallerstein instead argued that the global system was headed toward self-destruction. This outcome was visible in the figures, he explained: the first decades of the new millennium would see the fall of the “crazy fantasies of neoliberal capitalism” and the coming of a “dangerous, chaotic and unpleasant time.” This period would be marked by struggles between crowds seeking to democratize society from below and authoritarian counter reactions that would put democratic institutions under tremendous pressure.
Twenty years later it is hard to dispute the truth of Wallerstein’s prediction. It seems that democracy’s future today hinges on the capability of political institutions and civil society to handle political passions that erupt in collective protests on the streets, as well as in new forms of voter mobilization in social media. In both contexts, movements of all kinds assault established political parties for having betrayed ordinary people.
Yet, a big No to politics-as-usual does not warrant a sweeping ascription of a common identity, “populist,” to everyone behind the rebuff. There are as many reasons to reject politics-as-usual as there are areas in which politics-as-usual have failed—from infrastructure, minimum wages, and taxation, to education, healthcare, and climate change. This is why the term populism should be used with caution. Unlike most other political notions, like democracy or authoritarianism, for example, there seems to exist no “ideal type” of populism, which also explains why the brand is almost as frequent on the left as on the right.
This is also why the term invites ideological confusion. As established politicians and commentators grope for words in order to confront the unpleasant face of today’s political life, populism often comes in handy as their cri de guerre, naming an enemy against which we must mobilize democratic institutions, liberal values, and civic virtues. To be sure, such reactions are welcome and needed as a defense against the world’s Bolsonaros, Erdogans, Trumps, Modis, Salvinis, and Orbans. But are they sufficient? The rhetoric elicited by these authoritarian tendencies shows that populism is a label emerging from the embattled center of politics, and it usually warns against invasion by political outsiders. This is also to say that populism is a normative political concept, not a sociological or historical one.
What if we stepped outside this norm? In order to grasp the antagonisms covered up by the discourse on populism we should, I suggest, relate it to two other categories that tend to crop up as the two opposite poles of this discourse: the fascist and the migrant. Both are, strangely, designations of “the popular,” but with contrasting relationships to political power. In what follows, I first trace these categories in contemporary political discourse and I then describe how they shape aesthetic imaginaries of “the people.”
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In mainstream political rhetoric and media punditry the migrant and the fascist are ominously coupled. We hear evermore statements to the effect that migrants, if admitted in too great quantities, will necessarily generate reactions of white identitarianism. In Europe this is a scenario that conjures up dark memories of the past, when white or European culture rejected “otherness” by perfecting fascist and quasi-fascist systems of control, detention, deportation, and extermination of supposedly alien populations. When German chancellor Angela Merkel stated in 2015 that the “refugee crisis” of that year was “a historic test for Europe,” or when the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, shortly after contended that the migration challenge, among other events, had brought “Europe” to the brink of “an existential crisis,” or when Hillary Clinton more recently said that “Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame,” they tacitly confessed a shared fear of populism and its nationalist, authoritarian, or racist subspecies.
This fear stems from a worrying question: Can Europe’s white majority populations tolerate contingents of migrants without compulsively repeating past crimes that would undercut the self-image of peace, human rights, and international cooperation by which the continent’s leaders have laboriously sought to redress Europe’s past in the postwar era? However, the ways in which this question is posed, implicitly blaming migration for the rise of racism, prompts an even deeper worry: Aren’t Europe’s leaders, in their efforts to prevent a return to fascism by preventing migrants from coming to Europe, already endorsing measures that repeat the old authoritarian agenda? It is not acceptable to blame the presence of Judaism in Europe for the rise of Nazism in the 1920s and 1930s. It should be equally unacceptable to blame the presence of migrants for the rise of xenophobia and fascism in the 2000s and 2010s.
All of which goes to say that debate on Europe’s so-called “migration challenge” is a contorted affair, rich in fear-mongering and false dilemmas. Preservation of welfare systems is wrongly pitted against refugee solidarity, and migration is insidiously launched as an explanation of fascism. This debate shows that the political future of Europe, and perhaps also of the United States, hinges on how migration and the presence of migrants are understood. If they are today understood as exceptional problems, tomorrow will be nationalistic, racist, or fascist. If migration and the presence of migrants are understood as normal instances of human mobility, the future can be envisioned as in some sense cosmopolitan and transnational.
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If we move to the battlegrounds of the culture wars, an entirely different landscape opens up. Contemporary film, visual and performing arts, reportage, literature, and near-future fiction are absorbed by narratives and imaginaries in which the figures of the fascist and the migrant are enacted as principal antagonists of our time. Although these narratives and images saturate the mediascapes in which we live, there are still too few critical interpretations of them. The comprehensive critical analysis of the propaganda aesthetics of Trumpism or of today’s other authoritarianisms remain to be written.
As for the fascist side, its cultural and aesthetic expressions appear historically persistent in the ways in which they circumscribe the people. This takes at least four interrelated forms. First, diverse populations are cut up and framed as separate and homogenous peoples, on the presumption that the respective members of each people identify with one another in so far as they all identify with a dominant political fiction whose hero and expression is the leader.
Second, neo-fascist aesthetics circles the male and female body in recognizable ways. Aesthetic expressions here draw on a tradition—in the visual arts, film, and literature—in which feminized images serve as allegories of a people in need of protection by a weaponized masculinity. Contemporary neo-fascist aesthetics also utilizes its female allegories in value struggles over women’s pursuit of personal autonomy and sexual freedom. Should women be mothers or professionals? How should they dress? Who should they marry and at what age? These struggles reveal the fascist will to bind the female body to the reproduction of the race.
Third, neo-fascist aesthetics excels in well-known imagery and narratives of the stranger or migrant. Our public sphere is flooded by outdated caricatures of enemies within and enemies without. Neo-fascist and authoritarian rhetoric cannot do without the close presence of designated outsiders.
Finally, neo-fascism draws on a reservoir of nationalist symbolism. This endows it with a distinctive taint of nostalgia, amounting to the reinvention of an imagined past purged of elements of impurity and conflict. For instance, when European neo-fascists nostalgically evoke the era of the welfare state, they present this system as an organic outgrowth rooted in a consensual agreement among an ethnically homogenous citizenry. Whereas, in fact, all welfare reforms won between 1930 to 1970 were the outcome of particular forms of class struggle.
In this way, neo-fascist programs recode and repurpose what has been preserved in the archive of nationalism and democracy. It happens through a process that Robin Wagner-Pacifici has called “political semiosis”: each new political rupture or event is purloined by a rhetoric that relates it to grand ideas and values in the nation’s past, to the effect that each rupture or crisis is made to appear as a crisis of the very identity of “the people” or “the nation.” If a formula is needed, populist neo-fascist aesthetics is about the enforcement of identity in situations where the ethnos appears to be threatened and the oikos—the household or homeland—to be under siege.
If authoritarian tendencies in contemporary culture thus pull the idea of the people toward a fascist worldview, other aesthetic expressions counteract by stretching the idea of the people in the direction of universality. Here, meaning is attributed to popular forces that are formless, plural, and multivocal, and that therefore cannot be assimilated into a figure of identity. Interestingly, these forces today often materialize in the form of migration.
Migratory aesthetics has become a term for artistic and literary practices that enable community formation across boundaries. It registers how foreign bodies and beings, or migrants appearing at the borders of the self-enclosed nation, ask to be seen and heard in public life. Art, literature, film, and music can usually register such moments of democratic expansion and political emergence faster and sharper than journalism, sociological scholarship, or political discourse. In this way, as migration “enters” into art, the boundaries of the people expand. We discover that true populism cannot exclude any member of humanity. For examples, look at the “aggressive humanism” of the action art practiced by the German Center for Political Beauty, or the radical universalism of Ai Weiwei’s visual narratives of human flows, the Exodus of Safet Zec, or the border aesthetics that ever since Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) has interrogated and celebrated migration across the Mexico–US border.
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Let me conclude with a less well-known instance of how migratory aesthetics brings the popular into a global dimension: Manthia Diawara’s recent film, An Opera of the World (2017). The Malian-American filmmaker’s visual essay circles around Wasis Diop’s opera Bintou Wéré: A Sahel Opera, with a libretto by Chadian poet and novelist Koulsy Lamko. At its premiere in Bamako in 2007, the production gathered an ensemble of leading West African performers who staged an epic of migration through a repertoire of modern and traditional West-African song, music, and storytelling.
“Who is the hero in today’s world? Might it be the migrant?” Diawara asks. The opera’s plot centers on the destiny of Bintou Wéré, a pregnant teenage girl trekking from the jobless and landless class of the Sahel toward the border to Europe. She has been possessed by most of the men in the group of travelers, who all claim to be father of the unborn child, and they quarrel over whether the child will be better off in Europe or in Africa.
In his film about the opera Diawara interviews Alexander Kluge, who argues that Diop’s opera appropriates the preeminent form of European high art and brings it back to “its plebeian origins” (emphasis added). Interestingly, Diop’s search for the social roots of the opera form leads him toward the socioeconomic destitution and political messianism that surround the topic of migration in the popular imaginary of contemporary West Africa. The result is remarkable: migration turns out to be the popular origin of political change. Through the medium of the opera performance, a group of miserable West-African migrants transform themselves into secret missionaries of coming social movements. The victims become the future.
Bintou Wéré captures the significance of contemporary protest and resistance for the renewal of a democratic agency that strives to move beyond national and/or imperial frames. It does so by taking the political implications of migration as its basis for a new community.
The opera of our world turns out to be an opera about unstoppable popular movement, the mobility of the poor. I interrupt, I ask, I go on. Is this not, precisely, the unthinkable core of many of the best dreams and worst nightmares of our historical moment? A populism without borders.