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Post-Racial Pessimism: Therapolitics and the Anti-Utopian Present

by Christopher Kyriakides
2 Jul 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Post-Racial Imaginaries [9.1] | Article

Obama and the idiom of post-raciality are practically synonymous, but the election of a ‘mixed-race’ US president was bound to provoke both celebration and scepticism. For those who have spent a lifetime canvassing, advocating and agitating for the rights of minorities, radical ‘certainty’ dictates that one not be too dazzled by star-spangled utopias, carried away in what Tariq Ali has described and dismissed as the ‘ideological euphoria’ which followed the Obama promise to ‘heal America’s wounds at home’.[1] Writing amid Obama’s first election campaign Angela Davis cautioned against ‘a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change’ lest the proverbial colour-blind flag of racial unity continue to drape the national disunity which has plagued liberal race relations fears since Myrdal’s dilemma. Obama, she argued,

is being consumed as the embodiment of colour blindness. It’s the notion that we have moved beyond racism by not taking race into account. That’s what makes him conceivable as a presidential candidate. He’s become the model of diversity.[2]

Perhaps answering Davis, Tim Wise has laid bare the continued inequality underlying Americas’ colour-blind façade, but to a greater or lesser degree, US presidents, at least since Bill Clinton’s race initiative, have made much of the need to ‘heal the nation’.[3] It could be argued that the election of Obama, recently dubbed ‘psychiatrist-in-chief’, delivered the national remedy sought by the New Democrats’ 1997 launch of One America.[4] But what is missed at present both in the castigation of post-raciality as utopian and in the diversity critique of color-blindness is an appreciation of analyses which begin from the understanding that utopia is dead. Thus, to negatively brand any phenomenon as utopian (euphoria or not) is at best anachronistic. That which critics share in common with the object of their criticism: an inability to theorize, envisage and put forward an alternative society is left intact. Where politicians try to offer us ways of feeling better about ourselves in a world without alternatives, social theory dressed in the cloth of critique makes a virtue out of absent solutions.  In short, we currently occupy and are circumscribed by paradigms of pessimism – politically and theoretically. On this Davis is more cognisant and honest than is Ali, but it is precisely the critical ability to reflect that dictates the salience of critique. Today, the absence of ‘the future’, the collapse of possibility, brings a plague on all our houses.

Welcome to the ‘end of utopia’. Russell Jacoby invites us to contemplate the disintegration of radicalism, a present in which liberation and emancipation dreams have lost their substance, their foundation. We still talk-the-talk, but it is a discourse bereft of

belief that the future could fundamentally surpass the present… that the future texture of life, work and even love might little resemble that now familiar to us… that history contains possibilities and pleasure hardly tapped. [...] A new consensus has emerged: There are no alternatives. This is the wisdom of our times, an age of political exhaustion and retreat.[5]

Jacoby draws attention to the presence of absent alternatives, against which less than five years earlier Marxist Itsvan Mészáros issued a caution. ‘If it is true’, he protested,

…that “there is no alternative” to the structural determinations of the capitalist system in the “real world”, in that case the very idea of causal interventions – no matter how little or large – must be condemned as an absurdity. The only change admissible within such a vision of the world belongs to the type which concerns itself with some strictly limited effects but leaves their causal foundation …completely unaffected…

Such wisdom continues to be uttered without any concern for how bleak it would be if this proposition were really true. It is much easier to resign oneself to the finality of the predicament asserted in this blindly deterministic political slogan of our times… than to devise the necessary challenge to it.[6]

For Mészáros TINA is a Thatcher-Reagan ideological legacy, untrue but potentially disastrous; for Jacoby bleakness and blind determinacy are now. Although neither accept Fukuyama’s historical terminus there is an important distinction to be made between their respective positions. Mészáros does not ask why resignation should be favored over challenge; Jacoby, on the other hand, is concerned to make a case for a new radicalism by drawing attention to the impact of defeat following the collapse of communism. While the collapse may have been celebrated by those on the right, in an important sense the demise of the old left took a powerful source of political vitality with it, affecting both left and right. The last great human experiment signaling an alternative to the immiseration caused by the market – the Bolshevik revolution – although bastardised in its Soviet Stalinist incarnation, still provided an Enlightenment alternative to capitalism based on the exceptionalism of Man, and this furnished the right with an ideology against which to legitimize itself historically: however bad capitalism got, western elites could justify the market as the best mode of human organization in opposition to the barbarity of communism. The collapse of the latter delegitimized the former. The point is elaborated more analytically by Zaki Laïdi in A World Without Meaning. The end of communism led to political, ideological and theoretical fragmentation, an inability globally to find meaning,

if by meaning we imply the triple notion of foundation, unity and final goal: ‘foundation’ meaning the basic principle on which a collective project depends; ‘unity’ meaning that ‘world images’ are collected into a coherent plan of the whole; and ‘end’ or ‘final goal’, meaning projection towards an elsewhere that is deemed to be better.[7]

Not only is the bleakness described as a possible consequence by Mészáros now a reality, and not only does it affect the left as Jacoby argues, ‘no alternative’ suggests a new social condition in which meaningful change is rendered unreachable, unimaginable, and obsolete. Consequently, radical change is redefined, and ‘..freedom of choice within the coordinates of existing power relations’ is left in tact, while precluding ‘…an intervention which undermines those very coordinates’.[8] But how should we visualize these power relations? Here it is important to stress a crucial distinction between Politics and the political. As the late Cornelius Castoriadis once argued, where the small ‘p’ political merely denotes a series of negative and positive injunctions in a social network of prohibitions representing an explicit dimension of power, the most important signifier which implicitly animates the institution of society is that pertaining to its origin, its foundation appealed to in justification of power.  Whether  the  foundation  be  God,  Nature,  (racialized  and/or gendered) Man, ‘no material coercion has ever been lastingly – that is to say, socially effective, without  this  compliment  of justification’.[9] The modern foundation alluded to by both Castoriadis and Laidi relates to the significance of Big ‘P’ Politics which connote ‘awareness  of  this  fundamental  fact:  institutions  are  human  works’ unbridled by any form of external determinacy, providing modernity’s legitimizing foundation for hope unshackled from external non-human constraints.[10] Modernity’s plebiscitarian contract, emerging as a direct challenge to the Divine Right of Kings, entailed that social action was infused by Politics – a permanent rupture to the historical constellation of pre-destined hierarchy. The radical utopia, by challenging the pre-modern doctrine of non-human social foundations makes Politics. Autonomy, as conceptualized here, is in deep opposition to heteronomy (human action founded on appeals to laws of non-human determinacy). The latter is the hallmark of conservativism which establishes and aims to preserve limits. What emerged with modernity’s radical utopias,

is that the institution of society renders possible the creation of individuals who no longer see anything as untouchable but succeed rather in putting the institution into question, be it in words, be it in deeds, be it through both at once.[11]

This entails that we are not bound by modernity’s contradictory limits. From this perspective subjectivity, ‘as agent  of  reflection  and  deliberation  (as  thought  and  will)  is  a  social-historical project’,[12] yet it remained fully unattained in the modern world,

Politics properly conceived, can be defined as the explicit collective activity which aims at being lucid (reflective and deliberate) and whose object is the institution of society as such.  It is, therefore, a coming into light, though certainly partial, of the instituting in person; a dramatic, though by no means exclusive, illustration of this is presented by the moments of revolution [emphasis added].[13]

The political expression of a social system in which the human foundation is de-railed as a principle of progress is in this sense anti-Political, it is pessimistic and its pessimism gives rise not only to a series of negative injunctions, regulations and prohibitions which curtail the pursuit of freedom, but also to theories of society which limit aspiration. Elsewhere I have explored how this has played out in the UK context.[14] Here I want to explore how a similar dynamic has surfaced within the US ‘post-racial’ political sphere.

In the following section I will illustrate how the collapse of modernity’s Left/Right matrix has given rise to politics and theory which are implicitly if not explicitly opposed to radical utopias – indeed a theoretical virtue is made out of utopia’s absence such that change is redefined within the terms of end-of-history thought – both problem and solution are refashioned and we are left trapped unable to escape the ever changing present. In this sense both the celebration and critique of post-raciality share a certain implicit impossibility.

Safety Consciousness – the Other Than Mexican

On April 23rd 2010, the US state of Arizona enacted the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, SB1070. The law which aimed to strengthen the control of illegal immigration across the Mexican-Arizona border drew unprecedented reaction and protest. The most controversial part of the law, required that ‘a reasonable attempt…be made to determine the immigration status of a person during any legitimate contact made by an official or agency of the state or a county, city, town or political subdivision if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the US’. The clause evidently laid open the way to racial profiling. There is no objective basis for suspicion subjectively aroused other than the process through which the signification of threat is legitimized by law.

Viewed in historical context Arizona Law SB1070 can be interpreted, in effect, as an attempt to legalize commonplace law-enforcement practices which can adversely affect ‘visible’ minorities as a whole, and not only in Arizona. A 2004 report by Amnesty International USA revealed that racial profiling is so pervasive that it has impacted nearly 32 million people in the United States including Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Arab Americans, Persian Americans, American Muslims, and in some instances, white Americans. Moreover, profiling of citizens and visitors of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, and others who are identified as originating from these areas, has substantially increased since 9/11.[15] It is true, as Leo Chavez[16] notes, that the threat to national security posed by Mexican and other Latin American migration is ‘a powerful theme in the post-9/11 political debate over security’, but that threat extends across ethnic groups, such that profiling in police, immigration, and airport security procedures has expanded. For example, the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (H.R. 4437) clearly represents the process through which terror and immigration are at once paired in the signification of threat to the US public. The bill sought to address ‘border security vulnerabilities…. related to the prevention of the entry of terrorists, other unlawful aliens, narcotics, and other contraband’.[17] The apparent ease with which lawmakers move between terrorism and unlawful aliens reflects to an extent that ‘[t]oday the two seminal considerations regarding the Americanization of matters racial have to do with the twin towers of immigration and terrorism’.[18] The bill’s introduction followed testimony given to the 109th US Congress by then-Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, Admiral James Loy.  According to Loy,

[E]ntrenched human smuggling networks and corruption in areas beyond our borders can be exploited by terrorist organizations…. emerging threat streams strongly suggest[s] that al-Qaida has considered using the Southwest Border to infiltrate the United States. Several al-Qaida leaders believe operatives can pay their way into the country through Mexico and also believe illegal entry is more advantageous than legal entry for operational security reasons. However, there is currently no evidence that al-Qaida operatives have made successful penetrations into the United States via this method.[19]

The negative representation of migrants extends the boundaries of lawful suspicion.  Loy’s testimony provides a basis for viewing Mexican migrants as potential carriers of terrorism. But a report published in 2005 by the Congressional Research Service clarifies that the United States Border Patrol categorizes unauthorized aliens as ‘Mexican’ or ‘Other Than Mexican’ (OTM).[20] On one level the distinction is purely administrative. Unlike Mexicans, OTMs cannot be immediately deported back across the Mexican border as they must be returned either to their country of origin or to a willing third country – Mexico will not accept them. However, the OTM category includes a sub-classification which refers to those migrants who originate from a ‘special interest country’ considered to harbor terrorists or foment terrorism. But what are the criteria by which an OTM is to be identified? In a climate of suspicion, the person in the street is no less likely to misidentify than the Arizona state police. Despite there being ‘no evidence’ of an ‘actual’ threat, it is the special interest OTMs who are thought to constitute the most significant migratory threat to US security and it is their signified connection with other migrants and US citizens which underpins the state’s regulative framework. The OTM is therefore a precautionary designation with no objective existence. Thus, while it is important to draw out the continuities between the race policies of past and present there are significant differences applicable to the contemporary context which warrant further attention.

What is disconcerting about the OTM category is the simultaneous (in)visibility it identifies as suspicious. Although OTM includes a sub-category which refers to migrants from ‘special interest countries’ it can also refer to all groups. To be someone who is other than Mexican entails everyone on the planet bar Mexicans. Does this then entail that Mexicans are beyond suspicion? No. It means that we are all potentially under suspicion. The importance of the OTM category lies in its applicability in targeting the negative object – the common link between all OTMs – of risk. It is the degree of risk that an individual comes to represent which identifies his/her presence as a threat to the ‘vulnerable present’. The discourse of precaution surrounding immigration reveals a ‘policy fear’ that without elite management the present ‘multi-ethnic’ social condition is liable to collapse. Policy intervention identifies solutions which do not advocate positive change, but rather aim to circumvent the perceived impact of destructive currents thought-of as being linked to uncontrollable change. It is their sense of absent control over such ‘destructive currents’ that pushes elites and policy-makers toward the aim of securing our consent against the problem of risk posed by the OTM. Ultimately, the OTM is a post-racial cipher of impossibility.

In terms of the contemporary domestic law and order framework through which migration risk is linked to internal minorities and the wider public, a key discourse, if not the dominant interpretative paradigm, is that of “safety”.  At the signing of SB1070 Governor Jan Brewer explained her rationale for doing so:

There is no higher priority than protecting the citizens of Arizona. We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels. We cannot stand idly by as drop houses, kidnappings and violence compromise our quality of life.

While protecting our citizens is paramount, it cannot come at the expense of the diversity that has made Arizona so great. Nor can safety mean a compromise of freedom for some, while we, the many, turn a blind eye.

We must use this new tool wisely, and fight for our safety with the honor Arizona deserves.[21]

The discourse of safety attempts to key into ‘our fears’ and by default galvanizes those very fears that policy elites want to placate. Safety is put forward as a justification for increasing police border protection powers and simultaneously as a protection of diversity, of minorities. Brewer is mindful that state repression has often been justified at the expense of some groups in society, and she seeks to reassure that this will not be the case with SB1070 because the primary goal is that of protecting an ethnically diverse community from the effects of border harms. Immigration regulation is justified through an appeal to the equal right to be safe. The logic disarms opponents who work within the safety framework, but not completely. Dan Pochoda, Legal Director of Arizona ACLU, had on the previous day issued a statement that ‘[f]orcing local police to demand people’s papers and arrest those who can’t immediately prove their status will do nothing to make us safer,’ rather, ‘[w]hat it will do is divert scarce police resources to address false threats and force officers to prioritize immigration enforcement over all other public safety responsibilities’.[22] The Act will heighten sensitivity to immigration; misplaced hyper-vigilance will drain police resources, and result in neglect of other community safety threats. Pochoda is mindful that law can legitimize anti-immigrant sentiment with the effect that non-immigrant minorities will be targeted, ultimately undermining the equal right to be safe. Both Brewer and Pochoda are advocates for community safety, for Brewer uncontrolled immigration makes communities unsafe, for Pochoda immigrants and communities are made unsafe by Arizona Law SB1070. For President Barack Obama, however, both uncontrolled immigration and SB170 threatened safety. The law, he argued, would, ‘undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe’.[23] At a meeting with Brewer at the White House on June 4th Obama pledged to assuage safety fears by sending 1200 National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border most of which were to be positioned on the Arizona-Mexico border.[24]

Despite the nuanced pro versus anti Arizona debate, it is a mistake to view it as representative of an old-school Left v’s Right contest. The consensus discourse which appeals to safety is no more an endorsement of Reagan’s ‘rugged individualism’ than it is of Thatchers’ pro-enterprise dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society, only individuals…’. There is little in the adventurist myths of the cowboy rancher or business entrepreneur which appeals to a putative need to feel safe – the opposite in fact. Nor is the current US President an internationalist anti-border, anti-ruling class, Bolshevik.[25] Rather, Obama’s inclusion of community-police ‘trust’ within the paradigm of safety is telling in that it situates immigration within a wider concern to uphold the legitimacy of state institutions, and the legitimacy deficit has a history which pre-dates the current administration. It is an observation reinforced by champion of the Third Way Amitai Etzioni: ‘[t]rust is a key element of ends-based relationships; while general social trust among the general public has been diminishing, trust in public leaders and institutions is particularly vulnerable’.[26] Indeed, the idea of mistrust played a key role in the defeat of President George W. Bush’ Immigration Reform Act in 2007. Touted as one of the biggest shake-ups of immigration law since Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Act, the Bush proposals were slammed by so-called GOPs for not going far enough to instil trust. ‘The general consensus,’ charged Republican Senator Bob Corker, ‘is that at the end of the day, the American people do not trust Congress and do not trust the administration to carry out the things that are in the bill’. Speaking of their alternative Bill for what they saw as a stronger border security enforcement proposal, Republican Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson added, ‘we believe the way to build greater support for immigration reform in the United States Senate and among the American public is to regain the trust in the ability of the federal government to responsibly administer immigration programs and enforce immigration laws’.[27] The debate and crushing of the bill reveals deeper issues about Republican unity, but what is clear is that there was no disunity on the need to instil trust. In short, the Bush proposals were rejected because, it was argued, they did not make Americans feel safe enough. Speaking towards the end of his tenure as President, Bush reflected on the impact of the defeated bill,

No question the American people expect us to enforce our borders. And I understand it and agree with that. But there’s a humane way to do it and the approach I laid out was logical, humane and upheld our values. And has there been a political consequence to the Republican Party? Evidently. But that doesn’t mean we can’t regain the trust of the Latino vote. It’s just that I’m not going to be out there regaining the trust of the Latino vote because I’m retired — in 12 days.[28]

The complexity of gaining trust by making people feel safe is, for the political classes, intensified by the presence of what is presented in the US as substantial ethnic minority populations, in this case Latinos, but the need for an inter-ethnic safety-trust compact runs deeper than what some have interpreted as an opportunist bid to enlist voting constituencies, although that is certainly part of it. What contemporary immigration debate in the US reveals is that there is competition between groups ethnically conceived, not for economic gain or welfare (the dislocation of economic welfare from equality was achieved in the Reagan-Thatcher era), but for recognition of victimization. The so-called ‘immigration threat’ is one medium, ‘terrorist threat’ another, through which some ‘whites’ perceive themselves to be victims, and they want this recognized. This takes the form of demanding that the ‘state keep us safe, as is our right’. White recognition, if it is granted, then becomes the medium through which some ‘minorities’, in this case anyone who can be mistaken for constituting an immigration or terrorist threat, protest in the name of victimization. Again, the demand is that the ‘state keep us safe, as is our right’. The state responds to its ‘victim constituencies’ by conferring recognition, but it is a balancing act which in itself threatens to victimize, for recognizing one groups’ victimization requires that a high–risk perpetrator be identified who cannot claim that the label is itself evidence of victimization. Such identification is fraught with difficulties. Without a credible perpetrator the process must collapse through inertia, of which the inability to reach political agreement on immigration control is a testament. In fact, victim recognition is self-perpetuating: it is devoid of any possible resolution. More problematically, it has a genealogy which began with Nixon’s recognition of the ‘silent majority’ and Reagan’s endorsement of ‘victim’s rights’. Today, the absence of a solution to inequality is resolved through the virtue of victim recognition which takes on a particular set of characteristics in relation to the therapolitics of race and immigration, next.


Both proponents and critics of the Third Way took it as axiomatic that the ideological defense of individualism in the 1980s succeeded in letting loose Thomas Hobbes’ unrestrained perpetrator of ‘war of all against all’. James Heartfield has noted a basic flaw in their assumption.[29] The post-cold war political classes initially celebrated both Thatcher’s ‘There is no Alternative to the Free-market’ and Fukuyama’s End of History victory of liberal individualism, but as the victorious Right  – John Major’s Conservative party and George Bush’s Republicans – collapsed into the vacuum of a defeated Left, the capitalist state was left with a widespread crisis of purpose. The Third Way became the means by which the state attempted to re-legitimize itself in a world without alternatives to the capitalist system. But what the neo-conservative-libertarian coalition of the Thatcher-Reagan administrations misunderstood was that in attacking the social-democratic base of individual action, they also undermined the social base of their own attack – both anti-socialism and anti-communism were supported by a shared social base. The human individual can only express his/her individuality as a social actor, whether the individual’s social base takes the form of a political party or a trade union. Autonomy is not the same animal as individualism. Autonomy requires a shared social understanding of the basis of freedom. Cut-off the social base of collective power and the individual does not gain strength but crumbles. This should not be taken as an argument for a defense of social democracy against neo-liberalism; rather, the analysis reveals both what it is that the Third Way was trying to do – appeal to while simultaneously restrain the dangerous ego-driven individual – and why it was flawed. The robust individual was not released by neo-conservative libertarianism; rather, Thatcher and Reagan all but destroyed the foundation of Big ‘P’ Politics.

In the absence of emancipatory Politics the state-society relationship is re-cast within multicultural capitalism’s inability to deliver economic equality. The irrationalisation of equality reveals itself in the state’s attempt to legitimize itself through the post-racial lens of making the present “world without meaning” bearable to its inter-ethnic subjects. As Heartfield notes, ‘Third Way’ politics were therapolitics, appealing to emotion as a means of restraining its effect on dangerous willful action.[30] For example, in holding the Conservative-Libertarian era responsible for increased criminality the therapolitics of the Clinton-Blair administrations attempted to tap into a disinterested public on the basis of fear, thus legitimizing state through the governance of emotion. Working on different sides of the Atlantic, sociologists James Nolan and Frank Furedi have each drawn attention to the therapeutic turn in social policy and to a pessimistic view of human subjectivity which underpins the current policy approach of the ‘therapeutic state’.[31] For Nolan the ‘post-modern’ US state has turned to psychological explanations and interventions in order to provide meaning. Faced by a growing legitimacy deficit, a key characteristic of the Clinton administration was its ‘crisis of meaning’ which prompted a search for new sources of symbolic justification.[32] Connecting with the emotional vulnerability of victims provided a means through which the state-subject relationship was recast. Nolan argues that the move represented a shift from ideals fused around classical Republicanism, Lockean Liberalism and Protestant Christianity – three sources which collectively legitimated the American State – their fusion previously acted as a shared source of justification for policy on the basis of soliciting the allegiance of the free-willing individual. In comparison, cultural codes that justify therapeutic policy are not based on a belief in the superiority of wilful action; rather, current policy seeks to connect with factors which lie beyond the will – emotions.

Therapolitics helps us to situate the Clinton administrations’ approach to race. Less than a year after the LA riots, in his first inaugural speech, Clinton asked us to join the Democrats in ‘celebrating the mystery of’ the nation while inaugurating a quest for ‘America’s renewal’,

Americans deserve better, and in this city today, there are people who want to do better. And so I say to all of us here, let us resolve to reform our politics, so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people. Let us put aside personal advantage so that we can feel the pain and see the promise of America.[33]

Clinton’s invocation, ‘feeling America’s pain’ to release ‘America’s promise’, is summoned in opposition to the personal greed and callousness of individualism. Democrats are healers who will set free the nation’s anti-Reaganite primal scream, giving ‘voice’ to and recognizing the people’s ‘pain’ suffered in silence under the oppressive, domineering unrestrained egoism of corporate greed. Even before Bush Snr was ousted Clinton’s post-riot visit called for the healing of divisions – both cause and effect of LA’s downtown ethnic disorder.[34] And later, conviction of two police officers involved in Rodney King’s assault, facilitated the healing of pain.[35] Lest we take the ‘feeling and healing of pain’ as purely metaphorical, in Clinton’s second inaugural speech ethnic therapolitics assumed a higher intensity with particular reference to community bonds versus national fragmentation and its cause, ‘hate’,

Our greatest responsibility is to embrace a new spirit of community for a new century. For any one of us to succeed, we must succeed as one America. [...] The challenge of our past remains the challenge of our future: Will we be one nation, one people, with one common destiny — or not? Will we all come together, or come apart? [...] The divide of race has been America’s constant curse. Each new wave of immigrants gives new targets to old prejudices. Prejudice and contempt, cloaked in the pretense of religious or political conviction, are no different. They have nearly destroyed us in the past. They plague us still. They fuel the fanaticism of terror. They torment the lives of millions in fractured nations around the world.[...] These obsessions cripple both those who are hated, and of course those who hate. Robbing both of what they might become. [...] We cannot – we will not – succumb to the dark impulses that lurk in the far regions of the soul, everywhere. We shall overcome them, and we shall replace them with the generous spirit of a people who feel at home with one another. [...] Our rich texture of racial, religious and political diversity will be a godsend in the 21st century. Great rewards will come to those who can live together, learn together, work together, forge new ties that bind together.[36]

It is important to note Clinton’s formulation that ‘obsessions cripple both those who are hated, and of course those who hate’.  It is presumed as self-evident that racism has a psychological etiology which victimizes, not only those on the receiving end – the targets – but also the perpetrators. The distinction between target and perpetrator, between cause and effect, is blurred. To the blurring of the target/perpetrator is added a new distinction which emerges within the relationship between ‘the pretence of religious and political conviction’ and hate. Though obviously developed in response to the 1993 World Trade Centre and 1995 Oklahoma bombings, the distinction represents a departure. Few US Presidents including Clinton would publicly problematize religious or political conviction; what after all does it mean to be ‘one nation under god’. In demarcating the pretence of conviction Clinton makes a qualitative distinction between genuine and false religious and political allegiance. Hate manifests through false conviction, a cover for dangerous emotional drives that catalyze community fragmentation and national incohesion. Genuine religious conviction has the opposite effect. As Etzioni emphasizes, religion can provide an important post-social democratic source of meaning through which communities are established and social ills tackled

Communities, data shows, can play a major role in providing preventive and acute care, reducing the need for publicly funded social services as divergent as child care, grief counselling and professional drug and alcohol abuse treatment, as well as assisting in curtailing juvenile delinquency.

The strongest evidence for these statements is found in religious communities that meet my definition of shared affective bonds and a moral culture. Practically all kinds of anti-social behavior are relatively low among Mormon communities in Utah, Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, and Black Muslim groups. They are also lower, on average, in villages and small-town America as compared to large cities, where communities are less prevalent.[37]

The virtue of religion lies in the ‘preventive’ nature of ‘affective bonds’ which not only help to foster social cohesion by containing anti-social impulses but reduce the need for public-funded social services. The distinction between good (real) and bad (false) religion provides a rationale for cuts in public spending. It was shortly following his 2nd inaugural speech that Clinton launched One America in the 21st Century: The President’s Initiative on Race. Claire Jean Kim argues that One America reversed both Myrdals’ color-blind approach and the Kerner Commission’s emphasis on white racism.[38] Rather, One America was strongly pro-multiculturalist, pinpointing the existence of culturally diverse points of view, beliefs and practices and emphasizing dialogue as a means of promoting racial reconciliation. Government could facilitate this but the problem was not of a kind that could be solved by spending. Kim characterizes One America as a conservative-liberal move of historical precedent. In one sense this is correct, but Furedi implicates what he calls permissive therapeutics in the collapse of Left-Right political ideologies through which previous social webs of meaning influenced subjective identifications and social allegiances. Current psychologisation is neither an instrumental right-wing individualist ethos, nor a left wing liberatory advance. While a therapeutic cultural impulse has been tracked in the past, today the ‘cure’ is missing. Medicalization and psychologization of social and cultural phenomena have a history where the ‘sick role’ and the absence of responsibility implicated in ‘ill-health’ was a temporary condition contrasted with ‘health’. In this sense psychologisation previously included a transformative future-orientation albeit within limits. Current therapeutics erode abnormal/normal distinctions adding permanence to psychological conditions which in turn promotes no external orientation of transformation beyond the self. It is the fusion of what seems like multiculturalism and therapeutics in One America which is hailed as a virtuous solution, not to an American Dilemma but to an American crisis of identity.

The ‘multiculturalism’ located by Kim is in need of deeper analysis, for strict adherence to ethnic identity is called into question by the ‘pretence of religious or political conviction’. Etzioni’s ‘Good Society’ calls for a ‘community of communities’ which promotes ‘diversity within unity’ and supports mental health against the isolating impact of unrestrained individualism.[39] It is towards this goal that ethnic identities should be committed. The collapse of a transcendent orientation once provided by competing Political ideologies of left and right creates a vacuum filled by the psychologization of everyday life incorporating a solution to the very problem it delineates – to sensitize and not invigorate the dark impulses which lurk deep in troubled souls.   This has serious implications for the politics of race.

No Fun da Mentalism

The therapeutic turn takes its most profound form in the work of one of the most celebrated proponents of the Third Way, sociologist and advisor to the UK’s previous New Labour government, Anthony Giddens. In an article titled ‘The Third Way can beat the far right’, Giddens made the point that:

Among the emphases of Third Way thinking are two prime elements: reform of labour markets and welfare systems, to place an emphasis on job creation; and the need to address issues traditionally dominated by the right, such as crime and immigration.[40]

This should not be confused with a call to move right; rather it is an inversion of what Giddens sees as the role of the traditional left and right. Traditional meanings of social concepts are reinvented not within an individualist paradigm, but beyond the reach of a left or right framework. The approach was shared by Clinton’s triangulation and Blair’s ‘beyond the conservatism of left or right’. For instance, ‘welfare is not in essence an economic concept but a psychic one, concerning as it does well-being’; thus, ‘welfare institutions must be concerned with fostering psychological, as well as economic benefits’[41] Any remaining link between economic progress and human welfare is practically severed, material incapacitation eclipsed by psychic healing. Nor does racism (either pro or anti) figure prominently in Giddens’ work; it is the need to discourage ‘xenophobic ethnicities or nationalisms’ and to encourage cosmopolitan nationalism – a national identity which embraces diversity – which troubles him.[42] His concern stemmed from the holy trinity of globalization, ontological security and violence which hinge on the question of migration. A consequence of manufactured (man-made) risk intensified by globalizing tendencies, migration needs regulation.  Why? Because ‘immigration has long been fertile breeding ground for racism’.[43] Why? Because despite migration’s ‘energizing effect upon the society at large [...] cultural differences … may cause resentment or hatred’.[44] The assumption that cultural difference can provoke hatred leads to the conclusion that migrants from different cultures potentially disrupt cosmopolitan national unity.

For the Third Way, cosmopolitanism contrasts favorably with multiculturalism in the degree to which individuals are bound to their respective ethnic groups. People too tightly bound to an ethnicity are likely to run into trouble, so while ethnic diversity is to be embraced, it should not override the cosmopolitan community bond. ‘Under what conditions are the members of different ethnic groups or cultural communities able to live alongside one another and in what circumstances are the relations between them likely to collapse into violence?’ Giddens asks of us.[45] This is the question which principally undergirds Clinton’s One America. Again the conceptualization is neither left nor right, for while ‘[d]ifference … can become a medium of hostility… it can also be a medium of creating mutual understanding and sympathy’.[46] And how do we guarantee the latter? Giddens assures us that dialogue expressed within a unity of moral purpose insures that ‘[d]ifference’ will not beget ‘a degenerate spiral of communication … where antipathy feeds on antipathy, hate upon hate’.[47] There is little divergence between this formulation and that of One America where dialogue is presumed to play a positive role not only in facilitating a community of diversity but in disarming hate. But it also helps to contextualize the Clinton administrations’ thinking behind the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act of 1994 and the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996, especially when we consider the flesh that Giddens puts on the bones. Hate producing hate is most likely to occur ‘[w]herever fundamentalism takes hold, whether it be religious, ethnic, nationalist or gender fundamentalism’.[48] ‘[C]ompromise’ can ‘disintegrate under pressure’, especially where ‘individuals find it psychologically difficult or impossible to accept the existence of diverse, mutually conflicting authorities’.[49] Such individuals have a predilection for dogmatic authoritarianism, which Giddens distinguishes from faith, because where the latter ‘rests on trust’, the former represents an abrogation of trust through the ‘slavish adherence’ to ‘overarching systems of authority’.[50] The propensity for intolerance of ‘conflicting’ abstract systems is the character trait of the dogmatic authoritarian, not of those who have faith. The distinction between “slavish adherence” and “trust” fits with Clinton’s distinction between false and genuine conviction.

The aims of the theorist and those of the politician and state are not equivalent. I am not here arguing that Giddens’ or Etzioni’s social theory was or is adopted by politicians and implemented as policy. There are key differences between the way in which communitarian theory was developed in the US and in the UK, Etzioni and Giddens are not identical; nevertheless, there are convergences in the epoch of post-racial ordering. Specific and significant tenets are shared by communitarian theory and policy formation because they are of the same historical moment and speak to the problem of legitimacy in the post-cold war juncture. But the key difference between the contemporary therapolitical context of post-raciality and that era in which movements took their cue from Big ‘P’ Politics, is better summed up by those who were on the front line. Speaking in 1963 at Western Michigan University, Martin Luther King hit out against the stifling suffocation perpetrated by ‘enlightened’ psychological explanations

There are certain technical words within every academic discipline that soon become stereotypes and clichés. Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word ‘maladjusted’. This word is the ringing cry to modern child psychology. Certainly, we all want to avoid the maladjusted life…

But I say to you…there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence…[51]

King recognized the psychocultural entrapment which writes-off the demand for emancipation.  Explaining acts of anti-oppression as an effect of psychosis placed limits on the possible. The virtue of King’s insight was that it was grounded in the pursuit of a better society, free from segregation and discrimination, and he intended to do something about it. The oppressed recognized their victimization in order to go beyond the allocation of second-class status. King took on bigotry not as an end in and of itself but as a means of overturning the economy of white privilege. There could be no separation between economic and political emancipation because his dream was grounded in the essential regard which he bestowed upon the possibility of human overcoming. When Martin Luther King spoke out against ‘returning hate for hate multiplies hate…’ there was no question of targeting hate being the end point, nor was hate devoid of intent. The movement for freedom intended to alter the limitations intentionally structured by the anti-egalitarian movement. Such was the power, he believed, of human will on either side of the political war for freedom.

It is no secret that King had many differences with Malcolm X and the Black power movement; it hardly needs to be re-stated:

I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views — at least insofar as I understand where he now stands. I don’t want to seem to sound self-righteous, or absolutist, or that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. I don’t know how he feels now, but I know that I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem. And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.[52]

Strategies and philosophies differed, but what needs to be said is that on one position there was full agreement:

On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right. I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come together with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘We ain’t goin’ study war no more.’ This is the challenge facing modern man.[53]

Differences on the virtue of violent or militant solutions were important when considering the right course of action, but neither Martin Luther King nor Malcolm X questioned the rightfulness of putting freedom before safety, politic or populism. In the absence of emancipation no human is ‘safe’. As Furedi notes, the ‘celebration of safety alongside the continuous warning about risks constitutes a profoundly anti-human intellectual and ideological regime. It continuously invites society and its individual members to constrain their aspirations and to limit their actions’.[54]

The Other Than Mexican category with which we began should now fit into place. The dual (in)visibility of the threat it poses lies in its quality as a cipher of dangerous emotion which can potentially infect us all. The OTM, we are told, threatens neighborhoods, shopping malls, movie houses, restaurants, cafes, across borders, on foot, in airplanes, buses, trains, ships and on the subway. The OTM is also the reason President Obama stood against Arizona SB1070 while pledging 1200 extra National Guard to the US-Mexico border. But the set-piece of the Obama administrations’ race intervention was the signing into law of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (Public Law No. 111-84) in 2009. The law which prohibits acts of violence perpetrated against an individual because of his or her actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability was included in the $680 billion National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010. Coming nearly a decade after President Bush Snr signed the Hate Crime Statistics Act into law, and following in the footsteps of President Clinton’s Campus Hate Crimes Right to Know Act of 1997, PL111-84 represents a move in the definition of equality which is highly, but more than, symbolic. Critics argued that there was no relationship between hate crime and military defense and that the law created a special class of victim. The OTM category alerts us to why both criticisms are misplaced. Justification for the law is laid out in the ‘findings’ section of the written document. The first and second findings are as follows:

  1. The incidence of violence motivated by the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim poses a serious national problem.
  2. Such violence disrupts the tranquillity and safety of communities and is deeply divisive.

Section 4712 of the Act also includes a ‘prohibition on attacks on United States Servicemen on Account of Service’. The policing of, and military defense against, dangerous emotion, rests on a blurred distinction between victim and perpetrator especially when military spending aids, as it does, overseas actions and domestic defense against the suspects of terror. Anti-hate crime legislation does not drop ‘intent’. The perpetrator is he or she who intends to act against the target. But the explicit inclusion of hate as the driving force behind intent diminishes the force of the latter and provides a get-out. The perpetrator who admits to hating automatically summons the deeper question as to the etiology of the dangerous emotion. The most readily available answer, that he is himself a victim, not only provides an explanation for ‘evil’, but undermines the enforcement of civil rights. The pursuit of equality is placed beyond human hands. The criminalization of dangerous emotion does not locate the cause of oppression within the social structure, the institutions of ‘white power’, it is not a product of freely willed action nor does it admit to the contradiction between universal rights and the inability of the capitalist system to deliver those rights. Oppression is redefined when the cause of inequality is located in ‘hate’, but such is the current demand for cosmopolitan national unity. The move signals pessimism of the will: an economy of mind. The state requests our trust in its endeavor to keep us safe from the possibility that our discontent may lead us astray, driven by factors which lie beyond our will, to the post-racial disorder. But there are still those of us who believe in the human will, in the power of universal freedom and in the superiority of Big ‘P’ Politics over the politics of fear, and we subscribe to the view, today so anachronistic, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.


1. Tariq Ali, The Obama Syndrome: surrender at home, war abroad, (London: Verso, 2010) [↑]

2. Interview with Angela Davis. Gary Younge, “We used to think there was a black community,” The Guardian, November 8, 2007, accessed December 6, 2010, [↑]

3. Tim Wise, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat From Racial Equity, (San Francisco: City Lights, 2010) [↑]

4. Erica Werner & Julie Pace, “Obama Plays Voters’ Psychiatrist-in-Chief on Trail,” Associated Press, October 26, 2010, accessed December 7, 2010,  [↑]

5. Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia: politics and culture in an age of apathy, (New York: Basic Books, 1999), xi-xii [↑]

6. Itsvan Mészáros,  Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition, (London: Merlin Press, 1995), xiii-xv [↑]

7. Zaki Laïdi, A World Without Meaning: the crisis of meaning in international politics, (London: Routledge, 1998), 1 [↑]

8. Slavoj Žižek, “What Can Lenin Tell Us About Freedom Today?,”Rethinking Marxism 13:2 (2001), 7 [↑]

9. Cornelius   Castoriadis,   The   Imaginary   Institution   of   Society.   Translated   by   K.   Blamey. (Cambridge/Oxford: Polity Press/Basil Blackwell, 1987), 97 [↑]

10. Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 162 [↑]

11. Cornelius Castoriadis, “The First Institution of Society and Second-Order Institutions,” Free Associations 12 (1988), 42-43 [↑]

12. Cornelius Castoriadis ibid 1991, 144 [↑]

13. Cornelius Castoriadis ibid, 160 [↑]

14. Christopher Kyriakides, “Third Way Anti-Racism: a contextual constructionist approach,” Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies, 31:3 (2008), 592-610 [↑]

15. Amnesty International USA, Threat and Humiliation: Racial Profiling, Domestic Security, and Human Rights in the United States, (New York: Amnesty International) [↑]

16. Leo R. Chavez, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 133 [↑]

17.  Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, 95  [↑]

18. David Theo Goldberg, “Deva-stating disasters: Race in the Shadows of New Orleans,” in Race and State, eds. Alana Lentin and Robert Lentin, (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2006), 22  [↑]

19. U.S. Congress, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, National Security Threats to the
United States, 109th Cong. 1st sess., Feb. 16, 2005  [↑]

20.  Congressional Research Service, Border Security: Apprehensions of “Other Than Mexican” Aliens, (CRS, September 22, 2005)  [↑]

21. Statement by Governor Jan Brewer, April 24th, 2010, accessed September 20, 2010,  [↑]

22. “Arizona Immigration Law Threatens Civil Rights And Public Safety, Says ACLU/ Law Will Poison Community Policing Efforts”, April 23, 2010, accessed September 20, 2010,  [↑]

23.  Randal C. Archibold, “Arizona Enacts Stringent Law on Immigration”, New York Times, April 23, 2010, accessed September 20,  [↑]

24.  Darlene Superville and Suzanne Gamboa, “Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer Meets With Obama, Presses for Completion of Border Fence”, Associated Press.  June 04, 2010, accessed September 20, 2010,  [↑]

25.  Earl Ofari Hutchinson, “Playing the Obama Bolshevik Card”, New America Media, February 02, 2010, accessed September 21, 2010,  [↑]

26. Etzioni The Third Way to a Good Society, p.30  [↑]

27.  Michelle Mittelstadt, “GOP pushes Bush for commitment to border security/Some of the senators call for emergency bill to spend billions on enforcement”, Houston Chronicle, June 13, 2007, accessed September 22, 2010, [↑]

28.  “George W. Bush in his own words: Immigration reform”, Houston Chronicle, January 13, 2009, accessed September 22, 2010,  [↑]

29.  James Heartfield, The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, (Sheffield: Sheffield Hallam Press, 2002) [↑]

30. ibid, 174-201 [↑]

31.  Frank Füredi, Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age, (London: Routledge, 2004) and James Nolan, The Therapeutic State: Justifying Government at Century’s End, (New York: New York University Press, 1998) [↑]

32. James Nolan, ibid, 22 [↑]

33.  William J. Clinton, First Inaugural Address, Washington, DC, Wednesday, January 20, 1993, accessed 30 December 2010, [↑]

34. Robert Pear, “Riots in Los Angeles: Challenger; Nation Needs Healing, Clinton Says,”  New York, May 04, 1992, accessed December 30, 2010,  [↑]

35.  Sam Fulwood III, “Clinton Praises Judgement of Jury, Urges Healing, Harmony Across U.S.: Administration: President speaks before giving address on economy. His new attorney general, Janet Reno, says, ‘Justice was done’,” Los Angeles, April 18, 1993, accessed December 30, 2010,  [↑]

36. President Clinton’s Second Inaugural Speech, January 20, 1997, accessed January 2, 2011, [↑]

37. Amitai Etzioni, The Third Way to a Good Society, (London: Demos, 2000), 17 [↑]

38.  Claire Jean Kim, “Clinton’s Race Initiative: Recasting the American Dilemma.” Polity 33:2 (2000): 175-197 [↑]

39. Etzioni ibid, 53 [↑]

40.  Anthony Giddens, “The Third Way Can Beat the Far Right”, The Guardian,  May 3, 2002, accessed 10 September 2003, [↑]

41. Anthony Giddens, The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), 117 [↑]

42. Anthony Giddens, Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 129 [↑]

43. Anthony Giddens, ibid, 1998, 135 [↑]

44. Ibid, 136, emphasis added [↑]

45. Anthony Giddens, ibid, 1995, 243 [↑]

46. Ibid, 244 [↑]

47. Ibid, 245 [↑]

48. ibid [↑]

49. Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, (Cambridge:Polity Press, 2001), 196 [↑]

50. Ibid [↑]

51. Martin Luther King speaking on the topic of social justice at Western Michigan University as part of a series called “Conscience of America,” December 18, 1963, accessed February 4, 2011, [↑]

52. Interview in Playboy conducted by Alex Hailey, January 1965, accessed November 11, 2010,  [↑]

53. “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” March 31, 1968 [↑]

54. Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear (London: Continuum books, 2003), 13 [↑]

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Christopher Kyriakides is Director of Ethnicity and Communications Research, Cyprus University of Technology and a Research Associate of the University of California, Irvine (UCI). His forthcoming book (coauthored with Rodolfo D. Torres, UCI) is titled "Race Defaced: Paradigms of Pessimism, Politics of Possibility" and will be published by Stanford University Press in August 2012.
All posts by: Christopher Kyriakides | Email | Website

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