Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination
The rise of right-wing populism in the West is the story of our time. In the United States and western Europe, recent years have seen antiestablishment parties and candidates win unprecedented electoral victories by casting themselves as defenders of their nations against the twin threats posed by foreigners and a corrupt elite. The two major shocks to the international order in recent years—Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president—were both manifestations of this larger trend.
The populist story is primarily one of culture and identity, in particular the fear among white voters across the West that their cultures and identities are under threat. The current populist wave began with the 2014 elections to the European Parliament, in which the Danish People’s Party, France’s National Front, and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), all right-wing populist parties, came in first in their respective countries—results driven in part by a significant increase, beginning in 2012, in the number of Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians seeking asylum in the EU. Then came the 2015 migrant crisis, when more than one million immigrants and refugees, most of them Muslim, entered Europe.
The migrant crisis was a boon for right-wing populists. In 2015, Trump, then the Republican nominee for U.S. president, took a hard line on Syrian refugees and promised a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration. In 2016, Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, used a poster featuring a column of marching refugees to warn Britons what lay in store if they failed to leave the EU. That same year, Norbert Hofer of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party nearly won the presidency after running on an openly nativistic platform. Almost everywhere, right-wing populist parties received record numbers of votes and forced parties in the center to tack right on immigration and Islam.
Despite the momentous impact of this populist revolt, public discussion of it has been mired in confusion. The rise of populism stems, first and foremost, from ethnocultural anxiety. Members of the majority populations of the West fear an erosion of the connection between their communities of shared ancestry and their perceived homelands: consider ethnic Germans who feel that their country is becoming “un-German.” The Western establishment, however, has convinced itself that populist voters are those left behind by globalization—struggling members of the white working class who resent wealthy, cosmopolitan elites and long for the days of well-paying factory jobs and lifetime employment. This is a comforting illusion for mainstream parties, since it means that traditional economic policies, such as redistribution and job growth, would be sufficient to restore the status quo ante.
Right-wing populists, for their part, have been unwilling to admit that their appeal is primarily ethnocultural for fear that this would invite accusations of racism. Instead, they have dressed their voters’ concerns up as a morality play: here a plucky Robin Hood poking the eye of the establishment, there a fight to wrest British sovereignty back from Brussels. On both the left and the right, all have colluded in propping up the falsehood that populism is mainly about disparities of wealth and power. Journalists and academics should know better, but many of them have joined in, as well.
Among those cutting through the fog is the American journalist Sasha Polakow-Suransky, whose recent book, Go Back to Where You Came From, is a timely and honest analysis of the rise of the populist right in the context of immigration and Muslim integration. Pieced together from more than 100 interviews conducted in Australia, South Africa, and four European countries, Go Back to Where You Came From persuasively demonstrates that public concern over immigration and integration—and the perception that elites are sidestepping the issue—accounts for the rise of right-wing populism in northwestern Europe. Policymakers must listen sympathetically to popular concerns, Polakow-Suransky argues, but they should nonetheless maintain generous immigration levels and explain to people why their worries are misplaced. Unfortunately, a very similar formula produced the populist upsurge in the first place, which is why European politicians have wisely begun to abandon it.
Although populism is a force in nearly every Western country today, Go Back to Where You Came From concentrates on Denmark, France, and the Netherlands, with a minor focus on Germany. These cases share several important characteristics. All have recently seen right-wing populist parties and candidates garner between 12 and 35 percent of the vote. All were affected by the 2015 migrant crisis. All are immigrant-receiving countries with substantial Muslim minorities, and so tensions around Islam loom larger in them than in the United Kingdom, where eastern European immigration and opposition to the EU have been the chief issues for populists, or the United States, where Hispanic immigration, legal and illegal, is more salient. Polakow-Suransky approaches his subject with a wide lens, speaking with academics, immigrants, politicians, activists, and intellectuals from across the political spectrum.
A distinguishing feature of the book is the attention it pays to the splits opened up by immigration within the European left. Rather than cleanly separating left from right, immigration divides globalists, culturally cosmopolitan and supportive of the free movement of people, from nationalists, who privilege the cultural boundaries and character of nation-states. In the United States, this globalist-nationalist cleavage maps neatly onto the gap between Democrats and Republicans, with few of the former embracing the anti-immigration cause. But in Europe, where the ethnic majority in each country makes up a proportionally larger part of the electorate, the nationalist, white working class remains a crucial part of left-wing coalitions.
Economic progressives have had only limited success in dealing with the resulting tensions. Over the last three decades, the northern European left has moved in a liberal direction on cultural issues while abandoning redistributive economic policies in a bid to court university-educated, cosmopolitan liberals—those dubbed “Anywheres” by the British writer David Goodhart. During the 1990s, Polakow-Suransky writes, “the focus of activism on the left shifted dramatically from economic equality to identity,” opening up a space for the populist right to appeal to the white working class on ethnocultural grounds. But as working-class voters have defected to the right, the Anywheres have not made up the shortfall, leading to a steady decline in support for the center-left.
One of the left-wing parties managing to stanch the bleeding is Denmark’s Social Democracy. Badly stung by the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party in the 2001 elections, it gradually shelved its multicultural celebration of difference and came to favor reduced immigration, going so far as to support a controversial 2016 law allowing the government to confiscate valuables from asylum seekers. This shift was backed by Social Democratic mayors from the satellite towns around Copenhagen, who in the 1990s had begun warning their party about the potential downsides to immigration: namely, that poor newcomers could over-burden the welfare state and undermine the social trust on which it depends. Polakow-Suransky quotes one such mayor, Thomas Gyldal Petersen, chiding his party’s cosmopolitan wing for being out of touch: “They don’t understand that with free immigration we are letting down the people who live here, and mainly the poor.”
Although right-wing populists enjoyed only limited electoral support throughout the first decade of the current century, they were able to shift policy in their direction as mainstream parties sought to woo their voters. Already by the 1990s, however, right-wing populists had begun to try a new approach, one that sowed the seeds of their current popularity. They abandoned their former advocacy of free markets in favor of what scholars refer to as “welfare chauvinism”—a promise to protect the welfare state, but only for the “deserving,” a category that largely excluded immigrants and Muslims. This was combined with a new form of hostility to Islam designed to burnish the populist right’s liberal bona fides: although their voters were generally driven by ethnocultural concerns, populist parties began to make the more respectable argument that because Islam was intolerant of gay people, Jews, secularists, and women, only a hard anti-Islamic stance could protect Europe’s liberal values.
Events also helped. The 2004 murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch Moroccan Islamist radicalized public opinion in the Netherlands and gave oxygen to Geert Wilders, the leader of the right-wing populist Party for Freedom. In late 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad, which led to mass protests in the Muslim world, death threats against the cartoonists, and heated discussions of the Islamic threat to free speech. Danes rallied to the paper’s defense. In France, meanwhile, a spate of Islamist terrorist attacks, including the January 2015 murder of 12 people at the headquarters of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, the November 2015 massacre at the Bataclan theater, and the July 2016 truck attack in Nice, have kept Islam in the spotlight.
It is in his examination of contemporary France that Polakow-Suransky’s book really shines. With the largest Muslim population in western Europe, France has long been concerned about integration and identity. The question of whether headscarves could be worn in public schools surfaced in 1989, and during the 1990s, a series of center-left intellectuals—many of them Jewish—shifted to the right on questions of immigration and integration. Polakow-Suransky nicely weaves this bit of intellectual history into his story, focusing on high-profile figures such as the philosophers Alain Finkielkraut and Pascal Bruckner.
Many left-wing critics have compared contemporary French Islamophobia with the anti-Semitism of fin-de-siècle Europe, yet Finkielkraut, himself a child of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors, rejects these comparisons. “There was no Jewish jihadism,” he tells Polakow-Suransky. The Jews “were absolutely peaceful” and “came to France with a feeling of gratitude and intense love,” whereas Muslims, in his view, are attacking the citizens and institutions of their host country. Finkielkraut believes that the threat to Jews is greater from the left than from the right, because the former would open the country up to greater Islamic influence. And although French anti-Semitism has traditionally been associated with the far right, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, has undertaken a charm offensive to gain the favor of liberals, gay people, and Jews, thus helping detoxify her party and unite elements of the old left behind her.
One of the most original parts of the book is its insight into the new intellectual ferment in France involving so-called identitarians—activists seeking to protect the ethnic-majority character of European nation-states. Books by identitarian writers lamenting the decline of the French ethnic majority, including Renaud Camus’ Le grand remplacement (The Great Replacement) and Éric Zemmour’s Le suicide français (The French Suicide), have been highly influential, with the latter selling over 500,000 copies. As Polakow-Suransky relates, “The ideology of the moment is nativist nostalgia,” and figures such as Zemmour, an Algerian Jew, give a pass to white French people to express their displeasure at the country’s rising diversity.
Yet a rejection of multiculturalism and skepticism toward Islam are not limited to the right-wing fringe: they have begun to reshape policy in the center, as well. In 2005, for instance, Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s minister of the interior, referred to the largely Muslim rioters in Paris’ banlieues, the city’s immigrant-heavy suburbs, as “scum.” And in 2006, in what seemed like a thinly disguised bid to discourage conservative Muslims from coming to the Netherlands, the Dutch government released a video for prospective immigrants that featured gay couples kissing and topless women. In Germany, where the country’s troubled past has traditionally allowed more space for difference, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in 2010 that multikulti had “failed, utterly failed.” Even French President Emmanuel Macron, a darling of Western liberals because of his antinationalist rhetoric, has tightened immigration rules, endorsed plans to process asylum claims in Libya, and spoken of immigration as something that France will have to “endure.”
A rejection of multiculturalism and skepticism toward Islam are not limited to Europe’s right-wing fringe: they have begun to reshape policy in the center as well.
Polakow-Suransky appears to accept the case made by centrist liberals, such as the British writers Kenan Malik and Nick Cohen, that Western progressives suffer from a politically correct blind spot: although vigilant against the radical and racist portions of the right, they have repeatedly failed to criticize brown-skinned ideological extremists, such as those who called for the novelist Salman Rushdie to be killed or advocated violence in response to the Danish cartoons.
Yet he also takes care to alert the reader to the difficulties of being a Muslim in Europe. Treated as outsiders even if native-born, many face barriers in the labor market and social discrimination, such as informal quotas at nightclubs. Although he accepts the importance of legitimate criticism of Islam, Polakow-Suransky argues that the innocent mass of Muslims are often tarred with the same brush: that of terrorism and criminality.
Polakow-Suransky recognizes that the rise of right-wing populism is a product of mainstream failures. But he worries that populist success poses a danger to liberal democracy and could, down the road, produce a return to the ugliness of the 1930s, as immigrants and minorities are deprived of their rights. Although he takes the left to task for rejecting populist voters as irrational, he argues that one can listen to working-class concerns about the changing ethnic makeup of their neighborhoods while “defeating [populist] ideas by proving they are unrealistic and won’t help people.” He urges mainstream politicians to reject immigration restriction, applauding Merkel’s openness to refugees and Macron’s willingness to decry fear and division. And while he opposes open borders and notes that tribalism is a part of human nature, Polakow-Suransky claims that Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in the United States showed that politicians can “attract millions of working-class voters almost entirely based on economic appeals.”
Polakow-Suransky is right that politicians should take care not to smear particular faiths or ethnic groups. Measures that ban Islamic dress, such France’s prohibition of the burqa, violate freedom of religion, and there is a serious problem of discrimination against Muslims in Europe. It is also necessary to preserve norms against Islamophobia: critics of contemporary populism are right to point out that the broad stigmatization of an out-group represents a link to Europe’s anti-Semitic past. The same cannot be said for opposition to immigration, which played little part in the rise of fascism between the wars.
In fact, the generous immigration policies that Polakow-Suransky prefers arguably pose a greater threat to democracy than the nativism he denounces. Much of the genius of Go Back to Where You Came From lies in showing how the mainstream’s unreserved enthusiasm for immigration empowered the populist right by trying to force unpopular policies on a recalcitrant public. In recent years, however, Europe’s mainstream appears to have learned its lesson. In Austria, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, the center-right undercut the populist right in 2017 by tightening immigration policies and stressing integration. If another migrant crisis were to occur today, Merkel wouldn’t roll out the welcome mat the way she did in 2015—a decision that, however well intentioned, fractured the EU and led to the populist Alternative for Germany becoming the third-largest party in the Bundestag. This adjustment among mainstream politicians should be applauded as a sign of democratic flexibility, not lamented as a capitulation to the forces of evil.
That said, there is room for a liberal critique of the new European status quo. Stereotyping Muslims is inexcusable and should constitute a redline, and Polakow-Suransky rightly points to the breaches of standards of decency that have accompanied governments’ attempts to control migration flows, such as Australia’s use of offshore detention facilities to house those who have tried to illegally immigrate to the country. Yet his only solution appears to be to let everyone enter, grant them access to due process, and hope this doesn’t encourage more to come—an unrealistic outcome, given the enormous economic divide between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. Refugees must be moved out of harm’s way more vigorously than they are at present, but as the economist Paul Collier and the political scientist Alexander Betts have argued, the concept of refuge needs to be distinguished from permanent settlement. Refugees deserve to be provided with basic amenities such as food, medicine, safety, and shelter, but refugee status should not confer the right to citizenship in a Western country. Effacing the distinction increases the risk of doors being closed to refugees the way they were in the 1930s.
Indeed, it is far from clear that the pro-immigration liberalism Polakow-Suransky defends is rational for Europe. The foreign-born population of northwestern Europe is currently around 12 percent, unprecedented in modern history, and the minority share is set to increase markedly. According to the Pew Research Center, Sweden could be as much as 30 percent Muslim by 2050, up from less than four percent in 2000. Such vast changes over a short period of time would cause anxiety in any country. Furthermore, although an economic case can be made for a younger population, what if Europeans are willing to forgo the economic benefits in order to reduce the rate of cultural change and allow for the assimilation of those who have already arrived? It is one thing to shut the door entirely, which signals irrational fear, but turning down the volume of immigration is not the same thing. If voters subsequently decide to prioritize the economy, they can always return to higher levels.
Ironically, it is in his discussion of these fears of cultural change that Polakow-Suransky is most perceptive. He rightly suggests that the rise of a discourse of nostalgia and ethnic replacement points to the true sources of the populist wave. Commenting on the work of the identitarian author Camus, who waxes lyrically about a lost France that persists only in places such as the southwestern coast, Polakow-Suransky notes that “this same nostalgic vision . . . inspires all of the new right’s intellectual beacons.” Where he goes wrong is in implying that these “nativist” impulses should be denied expression in the political system rather than aired and calmly debated.
If neither populism nor Polakow-Suransky’s version of liberalism is likely to solve Europe’s immigration dilemmas, what, then, should policymakers do? A first step would be to approach immigration in the same spirit as tax policy, with the aim of using democratic means to reach a compromise between competing interest groups. Some people will prefer more immigration, and some will prefer less, and the size of these groups is liable to shift over time. Political elites should not declare that one of these positions is off-limits, as it is precisely this strategy that empowered the populists in the first place.
A solution to the problem of populism will also require an open discussion of the future of Europe’s ethnic majorities. Too often, identities such as French or German are dismissed as social constructions, ignoring the very real sense of meaning they provide and overestimating the ease with which people can be induced to abandon them. The particularities of these ethnic groups marked the character of the nations they gave birth to, providing them with their languages, myths, and traditions. The drive to construct inclusive nations has sought to sideline ethnic majorities, but in doing so, it has only made majority ethnic identities more salient for conservatives. When whiteness, Christianity, and images of rural France are excised from the country’s symbolic pantheon—as they must be in a diverse society—the white French who are attached to them come to realize that they are not coextensive with the nation but an ethnic group like any other.
The populist wave is a product of a convulsion, in which the shrinking demographic weight of the West’s ethnic majorities has caused many people to fear they are losing their collective existence. Their identity crisis has been exacerbated by advocates of immigration and multiculturalism, who have often framed the disappearance of majority cultures as something to be celebrated in the name of change and diversity. The solution is neither to dismiss these concerns as racist—which only increases right-wing populist support—nor to promise, as the populists do, that the clock can be turned back to a time of more homogeneity. Rather, advocates of immigration should focus on telling conservative whites positive, true stories of intermarriage and voluntary assimilation—stories that reduce the appeal of the populist right. The anxiety gnawing at Europe and the West can be alleviated only by offering ethnic majorities a future in which their identities—their myths of ancestry, communal consciousness, and traditions—persist as majority (or at least plurality) elements of society.