I am referring here to the return of the concept of »race« and not to the return of races. In other words, I am interested not so much in »concrete« groups (or something presumed to correspond to such groups, such as the »races« of 19th-century physical and cultural anthropology) but rather in a conception underpinned by a structure. However, matters are of course never as straightforward as this distinction might suggest. It is difficult to conceive of a generic »race« that is not expressed in contradictions between and hierarchies within groups. However, my focus here is on demonstrating that there has been a change in the relations between the structural, almost transcendental aspect of the problem and its empirical manifestations in terms of what was taught by the history of ideas not all that long ago. For our contemporaries the existence and the number of »races«, as well as the distinctions between them, have lost every scrap of plausibility, yet racial appellations continue to be deployed in identifying ethnic and cultural differences. People still refer to »Europeans«, »Orientals«, »Arabs«, »Blacks «, »Africans«, etc. Perhaps the principle of the race or »racialisation« plays a more dominant social role than ever, particularly as a genealogical principle and in terms of notions that trace the purported »mentality« or »abilities« of an individual or group back to their origins and ancestry. This is racism in the broadest sense of the term, although it is not appropriate to draw a distinction, as people sometimes try to do, between »racism« and »racialism«. If we talk of the return of »race«, then we are asserting first and foremost not simply that racism in the fundamental sense of the term still exists, but also that it has once more become highly virulent.
But why are we talking about a ›return‹ at all? Did racism ever fade into the background or vanish? And where is the racism that had previously disappeared coming from now? Perhaps simply from the depths of forgetfulness and naivety, which prevented us from realising what was happening right before our eyes – a little above or below certain perceptive thresholds. Or from the depths of our illusions or complacency, which persuaded us that democratic and humanistic principles in their official guise are not compatible with the theory and practice of racism, with the exception of »remnants« or certain »anomalies«. Perhaps however one must also assume that »the race« has returned with different traits and under different names, which made it impossible for us to recognise it at first. Let us attempt to clarify the situation for each of these possible scenarios.
Parallel to all considerations on the return of race, the future of racism must be pondered. Or rather the future of racisms, for the problem lies precisely in these myriad manifestations. The scope of the question begins to be revealed here: it is not merely a question of describing the unexpected persistence of the phenomenon of »racism« or its resurgence in our society. We also need to formulate research hypotheses about the shape that future forms of racism might assume, what this might mean: forms of racism that might catch us off our guard, for they go against the grain of our image of the evolution of our societies and our political and cultural systems; these systems are crucial to our survival yet we also sense they are undergoing a crisis. The real issue relates to calling into question a conviction that is profoundly rooted in an awareness of the progress of reason and democracy: that racism and a fortiori the notion of »race« are things of the past, and thus condemned to fade away before vanishing for ever. In contrast to this reassuring conviction (all the more pronounced as an extraordinary price was paid for it in the not too distant past), we must seriously consider whether this optimistic notion is not a simple ideological prejudice. What are the prospects for the future of racisms and of race – is it significant or of secondary importance? Contingent or necessary? Will these racisms more or less resemble the historical models or instead assume new forms, fluctuating between new racisms and the possibility of the racisms we are already familiar with summoning up new forms of collective violence, as is suggested by the term »racism without race« used by many anthropologists and sociologists? In order to be able to take measures against this racism we must attempt to gain a sense of what it might look like.
Signs of the times
Of course, this kind of question does not appear out of nowhere. It is the product of destructive tendencies in the economic cycle, which it is hard to escape. A detailed analysis would be called for at this point but I must content myself with a general but, I hope, adequate description, in order to find a clear line of argument. The reasons for considering the question of the return of race and the future of racism lie neither in the realm of pure theory nor in a purely empirical realisation, but instead in a series of problems of definition and interpretation situated between the two. I would like to underscore four »signs of the times«, which I shall attempt to describe, although I would like to highlight both their specificity and the ways in which they are interdependent – or rather where I assume that the latter, generally speaking, is a characteristic of the current course of globalisation.
First sign: the exacerbation in the development of nationalisms, both in the northern and in the southern hemisphere, and their tendency to murder individual ethnic groups, indeed even to commit genocide. Globalisation turns its back on the »cosmopolitan« perspectives sketched out by the Enlightenment and embodied in its contemporary heirs (Habermas), and instead presents itself as inverted cosmopolitanism.
Intensified communication, heightening of mutual dependencies, relativisation of the meaning of borders and the gradual emergence of a shared political and cultural space does not lead to mutual recognition or to an awareness that we are all part of the human race; instead it leads to an intensification of intolerance and destructive urges rooted in demands for more or less invented – and thus all the more indestructible– collective identities. One could of course object that this inversion of perspective arises because globalisation is inextricably linked to phenomena of domination and competition, which betray its imperialist nature. However, this kind of comment does not help one iota to solve the problem or even to provide a better description of it.
Second sign: the »clash of civilisations« (Huntington). I would not contest that this slogan, at least in the form given to it by its inventor, who became famous for coining this formula, so well-adapted to meet the needs of the USA’s neo-imperial politics, is an abstraction based on over-hasty generalisations of various sociological and political »facts«. As a result it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that is precisely what makes it so disturbing: it gradually penetrates into reality. It becomes a rule of behaviour and a tool that enables opponents to define themselves according to the »friend-enemy« model for which Carl Schmitt provided the theoretical underpinning. This sentence becomes a strange point of consensus between people who would otherwise define themselves as irreconcilable enemies with nothing whatsoever in common: the only point on which they agree is precisely that there is no scope for negotiation or dialogue, for due to their very nature they belong to cultures (or civilisations) that cannot be reconciled with each other. Although this way of thinking is historically flawed ( for all »civilisations« that have been described as such are rooted in mutual borrowings from each other, or, as Lévi-Strauss expressed it in »Race and History«, on entering into »coalitions« with each other, with their inner diversity meaning that they encompass just as many differences as the differences that separate them from others) or perhaps precisely because of it, for this point of view is erroneous, it began to dictate actions and reactions, in the form of actes manqués too. Think for example of the recent »over hasty« statements by Pope Joseph Ratzinger on the »violent « nature of Islam as a religion. That raises the whole issue of the actual significance of the religious factor in notions of world politics. Here one should discuss the intrinsic over-determination of concepts of »cultures« and »conflicts between cultures« in political discourse, particularly in order to reveal the complex interaction that arises between the religious (if one should not indeed really be talking about the post-religious, or about the religious in a perpetual crisis characteristic of the post-modern age) and the post-colonial (which in many respects does not differ at all from the colonial or is actually a continuation of it).
Third sign: capitalism has a tendency to transform itself, at least partly, into »bio-capitalism« based on the development of a bio-economy. This is not something absolutely new: Marx already addressed this point when he talked about the reproduction of labour power as a process integrated into the cycle of accumulation of capital (in the unpublished chapter of »Capital«). Foucault defined bio-politics as the sum of government techniques whereby the state becomes a player in standardising individual bodies and regulating demographic processes (in »Discipline and Punish« as well as in his lectures at the Collège de France in 1976 and later). The important element, the trend nowadays is the relative decline in the bio-politics of states in respect of the bio-economy; in other words, the way in which market mechanisms have gained the upper hand over administrative mechanisms (for example, the way in which French population policy has shifted in the course of one century from looking for migrants to compensate for the »demographic shortfall « in the classes that could be conscripted to the army, moving instead to brutal regulation of labour migration). The change in bio-capital no longer simply affects services and the industries that reproduce labour power, (housing, food, health, leisure etc.) but also extends to systematic utilisation of the human body and the living as a raw material and a target for the pharmaceutical industry, medicine and differential eugenics methods. That is why we can identify the formation of a technical division of humans, split on the one hand into the categories of what some now call »over-health« (or »surplus health«), in the face of and in competition with overwork, which is never anything but the converse of what Bertrand Ogilvie has dubbed the »production of the disposable human«.
Fourth sign: the group of political regimes that describe themselves as democratic – but what political system does not claim that it is democratic, if one only interprets it somewhat differently? – in reality corresponds to a form of exclusive democracy, or a democracy for some but not for all, and that in the form of »equality in law«. To that end, one must fine-tune mechanisms that make it possible to camouflage exclusion or to depict such exclusion as something entirely normal by cloaking it in the form of the universal as its logical consequence. Here again we are not dealing with an absolutely new phenomenon. As Luciano Canfora asserted in a book that made waves in academic and publishing circles across Europe, all historical »democracies« have always been based on exclusion, on »limited« citizenship. But to varying degrees, as we know and on the basis of opposing legitimations. The fact of the matter is that political systems that now claim to be role models for democracy and civil participation are precisely the ones that in practical terms exclude the majority of their population from choosing their leaders, via mechanisms of social segregation – as is the case in the USA – or that maintain institutions of camouflaged ›apartheid‹ – such as Israel in respect of its »Arab« citizens, or the European Union, which defines a new kind of transnational civil rights, which excludes »immigrants« or »non-EU nationals«, although many people in this category have actually lived in countries within the European Union for generations. All these phenomena are long-term in nature and thus raise the dreadful question that lies right at the heart of the modern universalism of »human and civil rights«: how is it possible that individuals or whole groups of people are excluded from participation in the political process although this is not based on property or a special status but rather on the idea of being part of the human race? As Hannah Arendt in her day demonstrated in »The Origins of Totalitarianism«, this is only possible if one finds a way to exclude them from humanity itself or to categorise them as belonging to some kind of subordinate humanity, as being purportedly incomplete or deficient.
In highlighting some heterogeneous trends in contemporary politics, I make no claim to present an exhaustive picture of the situation, but would like to convey why the »return of the race« and neo-racism are urgent issues in practical and political terms, in other words to consider the future of racisms in today’s »globalised« world. I would also like to recall that this is a crucial issue if Europe, criticising the limits and contradictions of its self-proclaimed universalism, is to continue to be a place where democracy can be developed further, which in turn is a pre-requisite for constructing Europe itself.
However, simply assuming that the return of racism and trends in the historical context in which it is embedded are interrelated is not sufficient to provide us with an insight into the nature of this link – this assumption on its own could even be misleading. For this connection cannot be based upon an instrumentalisation. It must develop through a conscious or unconscious symbolic process that develops in the collective imaginary and in turn acts upon historic trends. This is the level at which there is a need to determine whether the terms »race« and »racism« are still well-suited to interpreting certain destructive tendencies of humankind  or some typically modern aspects of cultural nihilism. That is why we must ask again here too whether the return of race is a continuation of the past or the start of a mutation in the structures of hates, whose scope would have to be measured to enable the idea of humanity to overcome its flaws and grow beyond its boundaries. In order to really answer this type of question, an enormous amount of work is called for on the historical, anthropological, legal and theological definitions of race between the moment in which it takes on a tangible shape (towards the end of the 15th century) and the moment in which it is dissolved and disseminated (towards the end of the twentieth century), although this work would lie not so much in the sphere of the history of ideas but more in the realm of philosophy in the broadest sense of the term, at its interface with the humanities. Here we might well become entangled in an endless discussion unless we were prepared to run the risk of teasing out certain central topics by taking as our leitmotif certain sensitive aspects of the international, inter-disciplinary debate over the last few years on race and racism, which have caused a fundamental change in our very understanding of the term. We have not simply been witnesses to a »return of race« but also to a return of racial theory – a symptom of the economic cycle, whereby the time has now come to emphasise some consequences of this - I would like to highlight three of these in particular.
Crises and consequences
The first consequence relates to changes in the concept of »racism« per se. Unlike the word »race«, whose origins date back to the transitional period between the end of the Middle Ages and the early modern age, the concept of »racism« is recent: it crystallised in the 1940s and 1950s at a time when the international order was being reshaped in the wake of the Second World War. This gave rise to the typical linkage of three major historical and geographic problems, although it was by no manner of means self-evident that they would be lumped together: the problems of European anti-Semitism, colonialism and the segregation of »coloured« people. At the same time this was also an »invention«, whose conditions always remain linked to the utilisation of the concept, as well as being the starting point for a whole series of disjunctions and metamorphoses, which mean current uses of the concept diverge to a large extent from how it was originally utilised and with meanings sometimes are the exact opposite of the original term. In this sense, right in the midst of this return of the race, the idea of »racism« is undergoing a crisis, which, whilst it is primarily theoretical, is nonetheless not without political repercussions. Along with this, the concept of anti-racism, associated with the idea of democracy, auto-proclaimed as anti-Fascist, post-colonial and opposed to segregation, is being called into question.
Two elements are particularly striking in a critical re-reading of the history of how the official concept of racism was spread in 1950 and 1951 by UNESCO and the group of outstanding academics commissioned to devise »statements« on racism and human races (Lévi-Strauss, Klineberg, Juan Comas, Dobzhansky etc.). One – which I call the »Sartrean Theorem«, as Sartre provided an inimitable depiction of this element in his famous 1946 »Thoughts on the Jewish Question« – asserts that »races do not exist«, at least not in the sense claimed by pseudo-biological science, but that »racism exists«, or, as the UNESCO spokesperson expressed it, a »racist myth« exists, rooted in the subjective belief in the existence of inherent, inherited (»racial«) differences within humankind. Conversely, this is the starting point from which to affirm ›human unity‹, which is a moral and epistemological absolute. However, this is also an anthropological hypothesis, which tends to make racism, although not races, something self-evident, by seeking its causes in the natural tendency of cultures (whether understood as classes or ethnic groups) to perceive the »Other«, located either within or outside the »Self«, as being non-human or sub-human, whilst considering oneself to be an exemplary specimen of the human species and the subject of historical selection or indeed as enjoying a status as one of the elect.
Centred on this possibility and on the functioning of this kind of anthropological explanation of racism, and hence of the content of the idea of race, 20th-century anthropology gradually moved towards new theories on the construction of »differences« and »alterity« and thus produced what we know as ›critical culturalism‹, which was slotted into the historical framework as time went by and stripped of its western hue (although here a work such as Stuart Hall’s, which, shockingly, is ignored in France, is the first and at the same time most notable expression of this).
Practically at the same time, however, based on a similar comparative line of thought in the three major models of contemporary »racism« (anti-Semitism, with its focus on extermination, colonial racism, which labelled the »lower races« of non-European origin as »bestial« and the prejudice against people of colour adopted from slavery and continued in segregation), some theoreticians attempted to interpret the phenomenon of the ›return of the inhuman ‹ within humans as extreme violence structurally inscribed in the forms of civilisation, which appears as the endpoint of history or the ›humanisation of the human being‹. Here of course we must refer first and foremost to Hannah Arendt, who in her work turned the traditional connection between the political and anthropological problem on its head and demonstrated that the political institution is not based on human nature but that conversely the »polis«, in the broadest sense of the term, produces humans and can therefore also destroy them. Extrapolating this to its extreme, we find the institution transformed into a machine for eliminating »superfluous« people, who have previously been physically and symbolically reduced to simple objects or to »pieces« of living meat.
Citizenship and elimination
A second group of consequences that I would like to examine reinforces the symbolic conjunction of the anthropological and political dimensions of »race« and the idea of its representation. If one examines the discourses in which race has played a key part over three centuries,  it transpires that these are so complex that one could write a »complete history« of Western culture or rather an ›inverted‹ history of its ideals – the »unpolitical« side, which it would be audacious to claim as being extraneous to the creative capacities and main currents of this history. In order not to create an imaginary unity by dint of simplifications, I think that we should take as a leitmotif the shifting conditions of production and reproduction of the ›intimate enemy‹. What we are looking at here is an almost »ontological« figure but also a quotidian institutional process located at the beginning and end of social practices in which attraction and revulsion are inextricably entwined: this figures lies at the core of the violence that Europe (but also other parts of the world) turns against its »immigrants«. Here one once again finds the paradox of European modernity highlighted by Arendt, which now affects the entire world: namely, the fact that citizenship as an expression of the universalisation of belonging to the political order immediately opens up the possibility of inverting the function of the criteria of humanity. As principles governing inclusion and granting of rights, these »logically« become parameters of differentiation and elimination.
In order to build on this hypothesis, one would have to demonstrate how the categories or »fixed parameters« of racism have gradually shifted, moving from a division of humanity into several sub-species to the notion of naturalised cultural difference, now taken for granted, and at the same time towards a sense of the alterity or irreducibility of the Other and thus towards a mechanism of inner exclusion directed towards all those who cannot be eliminated by society, unless it re-introduces programmes of »ethnic cleansing« or a »final solution«, which societies seek to avoid for cultural reasons, due to the organisation of labour and to genealogy. Here the symbolic mechanisms of the definition and self-definition of »race« come into play anew in the notions of ›the elect‹ and of ›selection‹. In this respect, their heterogeneity is just as important as the way in which they function in synergy in concrete historical situations. The first mechanism stems from the religious monotheistic tradition, which was first Jewish, then Christian and Islamic. Perversely, it was turned against its inventors and first advocates, not only by National Socialism but also by other »master« peoples and »rulers« of the world, who tend to believe that they are gods and to position themselves in imaginary sovereignty above »common« people or to style themselves as »redeemers« from an apocalyptic point of view – at the cost of eliminating or waging war against their »absolute enemies«.
Conversely, the mechanism of selection originally derives from a certain biological theorising about the human, or from what Georges Canguilhem so appositely dubbed »scientific ideology«, which was associated with evolutionary theory from the outset and over time was extended to encompass all spheres of the administration of human resources, from colonial administration to education (which was expected to reveal the innate, biological or cultural »capabilities« distinguishing individuals and groups from one another within a world governed by generally competitive behaviour). Let us note in passing that nowadays the mechanism of selection is applied in new spheres in the techniques deployed in cognitive psychology, behavioural psychiatry and their »preventive« applications, as well as in the realm of professional or sporting selection.
In philosophical terms, a remarkable conceptual tension arises, as the terms ›selection‹ and ›the elect‹, one of which is naturalistic, whilst the other is spiritual or transcendental, are irreconcilable yet inextricably linked. This produces an entire philosophical current that attempts to pick up on the tradition of »negative thinking« taking anthropological, phenomenological and hermeneutic sources as its starting point. Whilst I do accord great importance to these efforts and discussions, I believe that one must place them more explicitly in relation to positive institutional realities if one wishes to understand how the mindsets of naturalisation and sacralisation converge and create an ›intimate enemy‹, which could, parodying St Augustus, be said to be more »intimate than intimacy itself« and thus be the element organising mechanisms of imaginings on the protection of identity, purification and assimilation.
The modern institution of racism unites two diametrically opposed ways of thinking; on the one hand, the nation or political nationalism, based on the notion of an »essential community« and its unique fate, and, on the other hand, the market, based on competition, which – unlike the nation – does not appear to have either an intimate or an external »enemy« and thus to exclude no-one, but does however trigger generalised individual selection, which in its lower reaches means social elimination of the »incapable« and »useless«.
Class, gender, religion
Finally, a third group of consequences arising from contemporary discussions on racism should be emphasised, with ramifications for its »strategic« applications in the realm of sociology, anthropology and politics: I am thinking of the possibility or impossibility of separating the question of race from other questions pertaining to the domination and standardisation of human life, as well as forms or overt or covert social violence. Three symmetries are of prime importance here, linking theoretical debates, struggles and subjectivisation processes: firstly, the link between race and class (here Foucault’s works offers us profound and almost dazzling knowledge, with criticism targeting certain myths of the Socialist and Marxist tradition, revealing »class struggle« in order to better conceal the topic of »racial struggle« underpinning it); furthermore, the link between race and sex (or gender, to adopt the preferred terminology of American sociology, which does however have the disadvantage that it misleads one into assuming that sex differences are variable purely in cultural terms); and finally the link between race and religion or, if one does not wish to subscribe to a purely Western-centric concept of »religion«, the link between race and the institution of the sacred (although here we must not forget that public interest became focused on this problem as a result of the polemical debate on the »clash of civilisations«, which mainly targeted the essentialisation of Islam, along with the discussion on the persistence of anti-Semitism and the need to include anti-Judaism and traditional Islamophobia in »generalised anti-Semitism«, the symbolic source of which is associated with the history of Western monotheisms and their Messianic function).
Here again one must take the risk of oversimplifying matters. We note nowadays that the way in which these structures of power and subjugation overlap is actually a constitutive component of their structures. That means that it is ultimately absurd to attempt to separate race and racism from their class, gender and religious context. One might rather conversely attempt to trace representations and institutions of race through history in the light of various combinations of class and gender relations, as well as how these combinations have related to the institution of the sacred. In this sense race in the direct sense of the term »would not exist« but for reasons different from those once cited by Sartre: the term would only be an appellation, an ideological and discursive projection of the economic structures of exploitation and instrumentalisation of the living, breathing human being (whose »globalisation« is in essence contemporaneous with the emergence of capitalism and its »labour power market«), of certain forms of enforcement of the genealogical principle (which is inextricably linked to the sexual power of men over women’s bodies and the incorporation of this male power into the community’s reproduction), and finally a typical religious mindset defining the pure and the impure, the sanctified and the dirty, power to forgive or damn, which goes hand-in-hand with exploitation and sexism. »Reconstructing« race as the result of the combined impact of class, gender and religious logic would have the immense advantage of stripping it at least partly of its substance and demystifying it. Even »biological« race, which presented itself as a »scientific« concept in the 19th (and even in the 20th) century, could and should be interpreted along these lines. This could also help us to grasp the extent to which the social structures of capitalism, the patriarchy and monotheism shaped the mode of functioning of the institution of science, as well as defining its political functions of legitimation. That would make it possible for us to better understand the over-determination of representations and relations of domination, which converge to create, mainly on an unconscious level, the fascinating and horrifying image of the ›intimate enemy‹ and reproduce structures of inner exclusion under the apparent hegemony of universalism. This kind of reduction would however be somewhat premature in as much as it would mean the loss of the particular, almost phenomenological meaning suggested at present in Europe at certain moments and in certain places by racial appellations or their equivalents such as »Arabic«, »Islamic«, »black« or »migrant«. We need to work from a historical and sociological perspective, where the fact that race can never be entirely separated from family and gender structures or from conflicts between religions and notions of the holy does not mean that all forms of racism can be reduced to one single abstract combination; instead the idea should be to open up a possibility of understanding the variations, the »dominant« aspects and their novelty compared with the racisms of yesterday and tomorrow. This is the only way to do justice to the highly unpleasant notion that race will continue to confront us.