Cultures of Rejection
Cultures of rejection are practices, discourses and cultural formations based on values, norms and affects or political attitudes constituted in and through the rejection of a set of socio-cultural objects. More than just a gesture of protest, they are “modes of living,” or ways of being in the world. The objects of rejection may vary, but often they include immigration, domestic political elites, institutions of civil society and media, shifting gender relations, trade unions, and European integration. They are usually based on distinct crisis narratives. Cultures of rejection can lead to political decisions, such as support for authoritarian populist parties, but this is not their necessary outcome. They may also be articulated with a rejection of ‘the political’ in toto, for example, they may result in a decision to not vote, or in residing and working in a place where one does not have the ability to vote. They may also indicate a sense of being rejected or left behind. Cultures of rejection are grounded and reproduced in everyday practice. Our working assumption posits that cultures of rejection emerge from experiences of change and/or crisis, up to and including profound crises of authority. Our research project analyses the narratives of crises and transformation that are processed in cultures of rejection, and how meaning is intersubjectively ascribed to transformation and crisis in different socio-spatial and digital environments.
Trade unions are interest organizations of workers. Historically, trade unions have often been founded and organized by craftsmen and industrial workers. With the rise of industrial capitalism trade unions often came to be part of broader labor movements with various socialist-inspired ideologies, and at times they also organised around religious and ethnic identities. In the period following the Second World War, many trade unions in the capitalist countries of the Global North, often after long struggles, became part of officially recognized industrial relations systems of negotiation between the organized interests of employers and workers. With the neoliberal transformations that started in the 1980s and the decline in industrial employment in the Global North, the power of trade unions began to decline. The percentage of workers organized in trade unions fell due to changes in industrial structure, increasing employer and state animosity towards unions and internal union weaknesses in organizing women and migrant workers. According to the International Labour Organisation, the rate of unionization in 2016 varies widely across Europe, between 5% in Estonia and 90% in Iceland (rates also vary with respect to the countries studied in this project: Austria 27%; Croatia26 %; Germany 17%; Serbia 28%; Sweden 65%). While the rate of unionization is a significant measure of the power of trade unions, there are a number of additional factors to consider in that regard, including the industrial relations system, the strength of employers, the ideological strength of trade union members and the role of the state more generally. Despite a long period of declining unionization rates, trade unions still play an important role in capitalist economies.
While some social scientists distinguish between the content and style of populist political communication (Moffit), others claim that populism is a “thin-centred ideology” (Mudde) that must necessarily refer to other ideologies. Right-wing populism connects with racist, sexist and nativist ideologies and notions of social inequality. Right-wing populist communication is characterized by a primary antagonism between an (corrupted) elite and a “We” the people. A second antagonism is established with respect to “Others,” such as migrants who are portrayed as threats to “the people” that require exclusion. Right-wing populists conjure the notion of a pure, nativist people and claim to represent this imagined people. While they publicly regret the lack of sovereignty of this people, they simultaneously claim leadership and negate democratic popular sovereignty, redesigning it in a submissive role.
At the descriptive level, respectability refers to desires and practices of making oneself socially acceptable through ‘good’ or ‘proper’ behavior. As such, it is linked to hegemonic notions of what is normal, natural and right. This notion of respectability has been used in multiple research contexts. In particular, studies of working-class culture have asked how certain groups of workers identify with mainstream values in contrast to ‘unrespectable’ workers. Scholars of gender have shown how hierarchies of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are established among women, as wives and mothers, through practices of respectability that are linked to the private environment of the home. The concept “politics of respectability” has also been used to analyse African-American strategies in struggles for civil rights and inclusion. A number of studies have shown that striving for respectability can reinforce notions of the normal in ways that hide power relations. In this context, the idea of “migrant respectability” has been developed as a way to understand different strategies for social inclusion, ranging from struggles for social justice to practices of assimilation. As a form of migrant respectability, assimilation is understood as a way to negotiate a better social position by distancing oneself from Other migrants. With the growth of authoritarian populist parties and politics, some migrants have developed strategies in support of anti-migrant and culturally racist politics, with reference to being European, Christian or “white,” in contrast to the non-European, Muslims and racialized Others.
Racism is a social relation. It includes but is not reducible to prejudice and implicit bias, ideology and instruments of divide and rule. As a true “total social phenomenon” (Étienne Balibar), racism organizes social practices, discourses, representations, affects, subjectivities and institutions. It constitutes affective understandings of ‘self’ and ‘other,’ creating senses of belonging as well as rejection. Racism can play a determining role in cultures of rejection. Objects of rejection may be constructed along the lines of racist demarcations. At the same time, subjects invested in cultures of rejection may themselves be the objects of (other) forms of racism, and they may invest in racist discrimination against ‘other Others’ as a way to prove themselves worthy members of an ‘Us.’ While racism is an unquestionably hierarchical power relation, as a total social phenomenon or mode of ‘negative societalisation’ (W.D. Hund), it is an infinitely complex phenomenon that escapes any attempt to reduce it to a simplistic model of ‘oppressor vs. oppressed.’ We seek to understand the articulations of racism with class and gender relations, its reliance on culturalist and biologist discourses, its universalist and particularistic variants, its spatial and temporal particularities across Europe and its ‘post-racist’ transmutations in the current conjuncture.
Racialization is the process of attributing racial and/or ethnic characteristics to a relationship, social practice, group or individual from a position of power. Racialization (sometimes ‘ethnicization’ is used in a similar way) often focuses on somatic characters such as skin color, but it also operates with respect to cultural and religious characteristics, as in Antiziganism, Antisemitism and Islamophobia. Racialization is a used to differentiate people in order to exclude, exploit and dominate them. Racialization reproduces the idea of ‘race’ as something real and essential. By racializing others, people simultaneously racialize themselves as something better and worthier. Racialization is a condition for racism and racist practices. Racialization has been common across histories of colonialism, imperialism, nationalism and migration. The rise of ethnonationalist and racist movements and parties in Europe during recent decades increasingly has been accompanied by racism and racialization. Racialization is used as a way to differentiate groups that supposedly should be expelled or not let into a bordered area. It also shapes processes that normalize labour market segmentation by linking certain occupations to certain categories of workers.
The function of protest is to state dissidence, or objection. However, the Latin root protestari contains an additional meaning. It places the prefix pro- in front of the verb testari, which means ‘to witness.’ This etymology hints at a fruitful understanding of collective protest, one that emphasizes the participants’ act of witnessing. Cultures of rejection are embedded within a landscape of protest. Prior to the unprecedented public and political reaction to the Covid-19 crisis, there was the populist surge of 2016–2019, from Brexit to Bolsonaro, and the emancipatory rupture of 2011, including the Arab Spring, anti-austerity protests and Occupy, all in the aftermath of the global debt and financial crisis of 2007/8. Migration plays a key role in the discourses generated in all these movements and processes, and it may also be seen as a protest movement in its own right – the Long March of our era. Millions of people participate in contemporary protests of various stripes. To what deep structures in our political order do they object and bear witness?
In the context of cultural discourse, pathos is a modality of affective investment that takes a form of passive reactivity, such as pity or resentment. Pathos is characterized by an overindulgence in affectation, and as such it is always inappropriate to a situation. It emerges in contexts of lacking (adequate) social response, and it implies that social responsibility is in fact the ability to respond appropriately. An example of pathos can be seen in practices of abstaining from political participation and denying one’s own agency in relation to societal and political change, which essentially amount to a refusal of social and personal responsibility. In fact, any form of rejection that results in passivity, that is, in a refusal to either accept or alter political change, can be observed as pathological.
Otherness is the characteristic or quality of being not alike, or of being Other. It takes shape in relation to and as part of constructions of individual and group identities. Otherness emerges as a result of a discursive process of differentiation along the line of “Us/Self” and “Other/Them.” It is usually expressed in binary categories, using different biologically and socially constructed characteristics such as age, ethnicity, sex, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, physical ability, subculture, and so forth. Otherness can point to what is distinct or different from what is experienced or known, but in social theory, it is used to label the separation of social groups that occurs as a result of asymmetrical relations of power. Various modes of socialization over the course of a lifetime play significant roles in processes of (re)constructing otherness. Such processes usually result in stereotypes and prejudices that serve to maintain the social and symbolic order. Examples of political practices engaging issues of otherness can be seen in human rights struggles, civil rights movements, and other struggles for freedom with respect to race, religion, sexual orientation. Today, we actualize and continue to practice otherness through racialization and Orient-Occident ways of thinking, as can be seen in social resistance towards Islam and immigration from the East.
When E.P. Thompson coined the term in 1971, ‘moral economy’ referred to pre-capitalist practices of barter and exchange mediated by moral obligations and customs rather than the market. Since then, the concept has been adopted and adapted in various disciplines and stripped of its historical specificity. It has been used to investigate the moral dimensions of contemporary economies as well as the economies of moral orders. For a comprehensive understanding of contemporary cultures of rejection, we make use of the concept of moral economy in both senses. In the first sense, following Susana Narotzky, Jaime Palomera and Theodora Vetta, we approach moral economy as the norms, meanings and practices that mediate the inequalities produced by certain forms of capitalist accumulation, including the introduction of austerity measures and the informalization of labor. In the second sense, we investigate the sociocultural conditions of acceptability in cultures of rejection by mapping “the production, distribution, circulation and use of moral feelings, emotions and values, norms and obligations in the social space” (Didier Fassin). Both approaches relate to the question of authority: is the crisis of authority also a crisis of moral economy?
Migration refers to human mobility and is often conceived as cross-border mobility. As such migration is not a historical exception. However, European migration policies understand human mobility in exceptional terms, and they prevent, structure and regulate migration accordingly. The refugee and migration movement of 2015 onwards clearly has demonstrated how migration constitutes, shapes and changes European societies in all areas. Our project combines an investigation of the discursive, social and political effects of this movement along its route in and through Serbia, Croatia, Austria, Germany and Sweden. We assume that since that time and up to the present, the narratives and political controversies about migration in these five countries have promoted and required quite different ways of thinking about migration, and therefore also different ways of dealing with it. We also assume that the societal attitude towards migration expresses a degree of democracy in each of these countries. We are interested in how narratives about migration and experiences of migration and everyday life are lived in societies where migration is socially constitutive, that is, in migration societies. We assume that an understanding of these countries as migration societies today requires an integrative perspective, combining knowledge of existing and emerging mobility and labor regimes in interaction with social rights in and across European states.
Labor market segmentation
Understanding labor market segmentation is important for two reasons. Firstly, we often talk and write about the labor market. However, it would be more accurate to think about labor markets in the plural. When we look for job or think about working life, we immediately see that there is no labor market. Rather, there are a large number of distinct labor markets that interact and are integrated in different ways, based on occupations, geography, companies and industry. The concept of labor market segmentation is used to emphasize the limited fluidity, or crossover possibilities, that exist between these different segments. Understanding labor market segmentation is also important because labor market segments are often shaped by both the technical system of education and occupational experience, on the one hand, and the social system, and in particular relations of gender, migration, ethnicity, racialization and class, on the other. When we study labor market segments, we often discover that certain segments are composed of distinct groups of people, and that the segmentation evinces processes of inequality and discrimination and demonstrates how social norms link certain categories of people to particular labor market segments. Occupations dominated by women, migrants or racialized workers often have worse conditions and lower salaries relative to occupations dominated men, non-migrants or people who are not subject to racialization.
The concept of informalization with respect to economy or working life aims to capture processes in which different kinds of work are increasingly organized in informal ways. The concept has a twofold history. First, it derives from historical third-world studies that show how large parts of the population in rural and peripheral urban areas of what is today called the Global South engage in informal activities in order to earn a livelihood – a situation often called “informalization from below.” A second root of the concept can be found in gender studies research that has shown the extent to which women’s work – both unpaid and paid – is organised in informal ways. However, the concept of informalization has been used increasingly to demonstrate how informal arrangements of work are gradually becoming more prevalent in the Global North. This latter process has been called “informalization from above,” in order to emphasize how big businesses develop strategies of downsizing, outsourcing and subcontracting – often in tandem with the decline of welfare states. Processes of informalization can be seen in many parts of the economy and working life, not least in various kinds of private-sector service work, including logistics labor.
90% of people worldwide (men and women) hold some sort of bias against women, according to a recent report by the United Nations Development Programme. The finding of prevalent bias of women against themselves shows how deeply biases are ingrained in our cultural fabric. An implicit bias is a bias that exists without one’s awareness. Even if someone believes that characteristics such as gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity and religious affiliation are irrelevant to them, implicit bias often can be seen in their choices. Discourses that frames young, male, Muslim migrants as a threat to European values contain a multiplicity of (explicit and implicit) biases that inform rejection.
Identity signifies two very different things: sameness and selfhood. As sameness, identity is similar to categorization or attribution; it hits you from the outside (you are grouped as a Swede or a Serb, a native or a migrant, a worker, doctor, teacher or manager, and so forth). In this sense identity tells you what you are.
As selfhood, identity is your sense of who you are – the outcome of your lifelong psychic labor to find your place in the world, the meaning of your past and future. This labor is influenced by external norms and forms that shape your desire. It usually results in a sense of self that matches the identity prescribed by the social order. Althusser called this interpellation: we identify with and internalize the subject positions offered to us by the surrounding order. In this sense, identities are results (or symptoms) rather than causes of social processes, and personal identities can be multiple and are often contradictory. In periods of crisis and transformation political movements emerge that promise a renewed sense of meaning and security within the embrace of religious, ethnic or national identity, or any other kind of imagined community (Anderson). This poses a risky scenario because religious, national and ethnic identities are sustained through the negation and rejection of those who are grouped as not belonging, that is, as ‘others’. We ask: are contemporary national and racialized identities symptoms of cultures of rejection? What are these identities made of? How are they lived?
Gender and right-wing populism
The decade of the 2010s was characterized by right-wing populists’ obsession with gender. In fact, the success of right-wing populists needs to be understood with respect to transformations of gender relations. Right-wing populism joined the anti-feminist movement against gender that was originally launched by the Vatican with the dual aim of re-establishing a traditional gendered division of labor and a clear gender binary and also ending gender equality policies and sexual diversity. Nevertheless, right-wing populist actors use gender-neutral language in performances that aim to figure Muslims as patriarchal and at odds with European societies (as elucidated by Sara Farris’ concept of ‘femonationalism’). The flip side of this anti-feminist ideology is a masculinist identity politics. By conjuring a “crisis of masculinity” as a consequence of female integration into the labor market and gender equality policies, this political discourse re-signifies neoliberal transformations of labor markets and welfare states as if these changes were caused by (well-educated) women and (male) migrants. Right-wing populist actors claim to re-establish a sovereignty of masculinity through traditional gender relations.
Crisis of authority
A crisis of authority, wrote Antonio Gramsci, “means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc.” In this sense a crisis of authority is less an event and more a period – an “interregnum” in which “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” A crisis of authority is, for Gramsci, a crisis of hegemony, that is, a crisis of moral and political leadership in a class society that manifests itself in various ways. The rejection of political elites, commercial and public media and state and religious institutions is a characteristic feature of cultures of rejection. This raises the question as to whether cultures of rejection indicate a wider detachment from institutional discourses, that is, if they point to a crisis of authority in the Gramscian sense. What are the implications of protest practices and narratives that reject authority, claiming to fearlessly speak truth to power – what Foucault called parrhesia – and that, at the same time, invest in other, particularly authoritarian modes of power (see authoritarian populism)?
Cathartic politics refers to the active exploration of the political in terms of the experience and concept of catharsis and its implications. Catharsis relates to an emotional climax, or to a kind of crescendo of collective experience that results in intense emotional discharge. In this sense catharsis acts as a cohesive social force; it facilitates empathy for fellow beings through shared experience. Crucially, cathartic politics are lacking in contemporary liberal, postliberal and ultraliberal societies that are focused primarily on nurturing and encouraging individualistic affects. Especially in times of crisis, such as the increased isolation amidst COVID-19, a lack of cathartic politics results in an excess of unprocessed fears and anxieties. The toxicity of such states can be seen in increasing phenomena of rejection with respect to any other who is perceived as an agent of (unwanted) change.
When we research cultures of rejection, we investigate the transforming boundaries of belonging. Who and what belongs where and why and how, according to whom? Which group(s) does one belong to, according to whom? What implications do answers to such questions have for one’s rights and duties, one’s powers and capabilities, one’s exposure to violence and one’s claim to solidarity? Cultures of rejection construct belonging not just as “cognitive stories,” as Nura Yuval-Davis reminds us, but as reflections of “emotional investments and desire for attachments.” Yuval-Davis analytically distinguishes “belonging” from the “politics of belonging.” The latter is defined as the maintenance and contestation of community boundaries. Consider debates over access to welfare and political rights: to reject access can be read as an element of a culture of rejection, but also as an engagement with the politics of belonging. We might add: how is belonging to a group (or to multiple groups) lived and experienced? How does belonging alternate between association and attribution? How is belonging lived socially, and how can we trace narratives of discontent and transformation in the ways belonging is lived?
Authoritarianism describes specific types of government whose common principle is obedience to a central authority at the expense of personal freedoms, the rule of law, and the principle of the separation of powers. It is defined ‘negatively,’ that is, with respect to a deficit of democratic principles and practices, including freedom, political pluralism, civic participation, free and fair elections and constitutional checks and balances. Considered spatially authoritarianism can be seen to represent the middle of a continuum, the opposite ends of which are (liberal) democracy and totalitarianism. The absence of distinct democratic elements can give shape to different kinds of authoritarianism, as evidenced by the variety of descriptive terms in use, including hybrid systems, mixed systems, defective democracies, illiberal democracies, competitive/electoral/stealth authoritarianism, abusive/authoritarian constitutionalism, and so forth. The rise of authoritarianism often occurs together with the rise of (right-wing) populism that seeks a strong executive power ‘in the name of people’ unhindered by legal constraints. Contemporary authoritarianism usually keeps a democratic facade, that is, authoritarian governments maintain a constitution and quasi-democratic institutions and norms, hindering the identification of authoritarianism until it has reached an advanced stage.
Authoritarian populism is a concept originally coined by Stuart Hall in the late 1970s. His aim was to understand the popular appeal of neoliberal ‘Thatcherism,’ or the peculiar combination of “free market, strong state.” While right-wing populism is often reduced in contemporary academic debates to a “thin ideology,” a political strategy or style, Hall urges us to understand it as a way in which political agents re-organize hegemony under conditions of crisis. Authoritarian populism offers ways to make sense of transformations that are experienced as threatening by articulating such transformations in a language of moral decline or in the name of “common sense.” Examples of authoritarian populism today include narratives about the sustainability of the welfare state (and the actual degradation of welfare institutions that accompanies such narratives); discourses about the supposed sexism of (Muslim and/or racialized) “Others” that simultaneously aim to undermine feminist achievements (see gender and right-wing populism); and celebrations of diversity and the so-called open society that ignore and/or promote the dismantling of basic rights of mobile and sedentary populations. As a political project striving for hegemony, authoritarian populism promises the restoration of moral order in the name of a popular common sense against both the elites and their institutions and deviant ‘others,’ such as migrants or the so-called ‘undeserving’ poor.
Austerity is a set of economic policies aimed at restoring market competitiveness by reducing wages and public spending. This recipe for economic recovery has failed in most places where it has been tried. It has also generated social polarization: poverty for the many at one end and wealth for the few at the other. Austerity is also an ideology that portrays the dismantling of welfare and social rights as a necessity, even a virtue. Associated with commands from political and economic authorities, austerity is a call to order and discipline, intended to mobilize against external threats or close ranks in times of internal troubles. Economic concerns are thus turned into ‘a moral game’: the individual employee and citizen is made personally responsible for ongoing societal decay and asked to fix this by becoming more obedient, resilient and agile (see moral economy). The ideology of austerity may help to illuminate why the hopes and fears of many Europeans take on an authoritarian bent.
The cultural realm is essentially affective. In it we negotiate what we value, fear, and cherish – those things that concern us deeply. Affects can play a cohesive role in culture and society, but they also can be centered on rejection. Distrust, envy, fear, anger, resentment, indignation, contempt and hatred are significant factors in cultural and political developments, such as the rise of populist tendencies in the wake of the so-called European “refugee crisis.” Affective investments are easily exploited in cultural and political rhetoric. As such, they can be mobilized to disrupt cultural discourse and democratic processes.
We are interested in how authoritarianism is criticized and lived in Europe. How does authoritarianism become acceptable as a way of thinking? It seems that any criticism of authoritarianism based on rationality and/or numbers is linked with existing powers in inseparable and tragic ways. Far too often such critiques focus on what authoritarianism questions in the existing world, and what in the existing world must be preserved. Too seldom do they inquire into what about the past world must be overcome in order to find a way out of authoritarianism. Our suggestion is that we need to better understand the present, historically concrete connection between knowledge and power (Foucault) with respect to both agreements with and critiques of authoritarianism.
Thus, we turn our attention to conditions of acceptability. Foucault describes this process in his essay "What is critique?" He suggests there that we shift our analysis from the empirical observability of an ensemble to its historical acceptability, from the point of its acceptance to what makes it acceptable, from the fact of acceptance to the system of acceptability. Following Foucault we seek to pay attention to struggles over the terrain of acceptability. For this reason, we privilege the everyday life of people. We do so not because we believe this to be the privileged (read: exclusive) research site for understanding the acceptability of authoritarian modes of politics and life. Rather, our commitment consists in the belief that acceptability necessarily takes hold in the realm of the everyday, in mundane modes of living and thinking, in order for authoritarian discourses and practices to become successful. And we believe that such processes occur in contradictory rather than straightforward ways. How are such contradictions articulated? How are they lived? Sometimes we focus too much on public discourse instead of the social conditions that allow for and promote that discourse. By focusing on everyday utterances, perhaps we can speak differently about the models, concepts and qualities of authoritarianism. We may notice unforeseen ways in which modes and practices of authoritarianism are articulated and how they move around in our lives. In our studies of cultures of rejection, we may find cultures of acceptability. And we may detect cultures of unacceptability.