Paul Gilroy: from raciology to planetary humanism

“when the water is lapping up the road, I don’t know that people are going to be fretting so much about their whiteness. Maybe they will. Maybe the appeal of a racial war has its own psychic magnetism for some folk. But I would like to think that in the teeth of the emergency, if that awaits us, there will be other options there which are more future oriented, which allow us to live life relative to a future that we can’t quite anatomise from this distance.” (Paul Gilroy, from The Absurdities of Race)

There are three important reasons to engage with the work of Paul Gilroy, in particular, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987) and Against Race (2000): one, his exploration of the intersection of racism and nationalism, which is in sharp contrast to Benedict Anderson’s (1983) separation of the two ideologies in Imagined Communities; two, and related to the former, Gilroy’s recognition of the cultural essentialist dynamic in contemporary racism; three, his desire to move anti-racism politics beyond the idea of racial difference and toward what he calls a planetary humanism, which sees culture as universal, hybrid and fluid. I recommend this engagement with Gilroy with two qualifications: first, what he and others identified in the 1980s as ‘new racism’ was not so new, since an interplay between biology and culture in the idea of natural races has long existed; second, in his search for a planetary humanism, Gilroy prematurely and crudely dismisses Marxism and fails to originally engage with the ideas of classical Marxism, despite, it’s worth noting, the influence of W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James in his work.

Moving then to Paul Gilroy in his own words.

From The Crisis of ‘Race’ and Raciology:

“Some years ago, a loose group of scholars in which the English philosopher Martin Barker was especially influential began, in recognition of changed patterns in the way the discourse of racial difference was employed in politics, to speak about the emergence of what they called a New Racism. This racism was defined by its strong culturalist and nationalist inclinations. Whereas in the past raciology had been arrogant in its imperial certainty that biology was both destiny and hierarchy, this persuasive new variant was openly uncomfortable with the idea that “race” could be biologically based. Consciousness of “race” was seen instead as closely linked to the idea of nationality. Authentic, historic nations had discrete cultural fillings. Their precious homogeneity endowed them with great strength and prestige. Where large “indigestible” chunks of alien settlement had taken place, all manner of dangers were apparent. Conflict was visible, above all, along cultural lines. Of course, these regrettably transplanted aliens were not identified as inferior, less worthy, or less admirable than their “hosts.” They may not have been infrahuman, but they were certainly out of place. The social, economic, and political problems that had followed their mistaken importation could only be solved by restoring the symmetry and stability that flowed from putting them back where they belonged. Nature, history, and geopolitics dictated that people should cleave to their own kind and be most comfortable in the environments that matched their distinctive cultural and therefore national modes of being in the world. Mythic versions of cultural ecology were invented to rationalize the lives of these discrete national and racial identities. The Germans became a people in their forests, whereas the British were a nation whose seafaring activity shaped their essential inner character. In all cases, fragments of self-evident truth nourished the fantasies of blood and belonging, which in turn demanded an elaborate geopolitical cartography of nationality.”

“the idea of “race” has lost much of its common-sense credibility, because the elaborate cultural and ideological work that goes into producing and reproducing it is more visible than ever before, because it has been stripped of its moral and intellectual integrity, and because there is a chance to prevent its rehabilitation. Prompted by the impact of genomics, “race,” as it has been defined in the past, has also become vulnerable to the claims of a much more elaborate, less deterministic biology. It is therefore all the more disappointing that much influential recent work in this area loses its nerve in the final furlong and opts to remain ambiguous about whether the idea of “race” can survive a critical revision of the relationship between human beings and their constantly shifting social nature. Whether it is articulated in the more specialized tongues of biological science and pseudo-science or in a vernacular idiom of culture and common sense, the term “race” conjures up a peculiarly resistant variety of natural difference. It stands outside of, and in opposition to, most attempts to render it secondary to the overwhelming sameness that overdetermines social relationships between people and continually betrays the tragic predicaments of their common species life. The undervalued power of this crushingly obvious, almost banal human sameness, so close and basically invariant that it regularly passes unremarked upon, also confirms that the crisis of raciological reasoning presents an important opportunity where it points toward the possibility of leaving “race” behind, of setting aside its disabling use as we move out of the time in which it could have been expected to make sense.”

From A diagnosis of contemporary forms of racism, race and nationalism: a conversation with Professor Paul Gilroy:

“The context of [There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack] – originally – was the emergence of what a number of us had begun to call a new racism. By calling it a new racism we were drawing attention to the fact that it was strongly culturalist in character, and that it articulated nationalism and racism very tightly together. Now, at that time – I don’t know if this has changed completely – but thirty years ago, it was very conventional to say that nationalism belongs to one area of scholarship and racism belongs … if it belonged to any … if it belongs at all to scholarship, it went somewhere else […]. wherever it was, it was not connected to the academic study of nationalism. This separation was there, for example in Benedict Anderson’s very influential book (Anderson 2004). He tries to separate the two things out very sharply, and I suppose I felt that the starting point for any critique of the racism that I was most familiar with was a very close connection with nationalism. That association was accomplished through a particular sense of what culture could be, which had acquired all the force of an earlier biologically-orientated racism. But the new racism didn’t announce itself as a biological racism. It made culture into the favoured battleground. It made culture something we had to quarrel with. We had to offer a better understanding of culture. We had an opportunity I suppose […] to make a better theory of culture than the one that saw culture distributed in national buckets so that you were either in the bucket of your exclusive national culture, or somewhere else in some other bucket somewhere. We had a chance to show how culture moved, how it lived, how it reproduced, to understand its organicity, its fluidity, plasticity, mutability: the conflict that it hosted. […] As a result, we had to update our understanding of how to combat racism in the field of ideas: in our disciplines, in our institutions, in our universities. We could only do this if we saw the new variety of racism that was strongly cultural in character – so cultural, so different supposedly – from a biological racism that it could hold up its hands and plead that it wasn’t racism at all. So, to try and show that, to show the history of how that had happened, that was the aim, the principal aim of that book. […] Many people on the left thirty years ago, just as many people on the left now in the wake of the vote against the EU membership, they look to places like Norway and they say ‘Oh, but the left has always been nationalist’, ‘it is perfectly possible to be a leftist and a nationalist’ and so on. There were many people in my intellectual and political environment who regardless of the connection with racism were saying that we had to find a wholesome patriotism, find a ‘clean’ nationalism which will mean that we can challenge the hegemony of those who rule, exploit and expropriate by articulating national feeling to the Right. I was never convinced by that argument, because it was an argument that could only be made if you did not take racism into account. […] There was always the danger that there would be a kind of overlap between the left nationalism and patriotism and the things that were being said on the right. Today we have many – they call it ‘Lexit’ – the people on the left who support leaving the EU. This division is in some ways a replay of some of these older problems. Nowadays the anti-racist part of it – people like the Socialist Workers Party and these groupings – they are forgetful. Their memories have been very badly affected in the intervening time, because they don’t remember that the racists we were fighting in the street in the 1970s and early 80s, these were people who had a political programme where the first aim was ‘get the blacks out, get the browns out’ and the second thing on the list was ‘Leave the EU’. So now, those people want to talk about Trump and what’s happening in America, but they won’t talk about the actual issues involved in dealing with the political contradiction into which they have led people.”

“There are some people – rightly or wrongly – who want anti-racism to be a critical project only. They want to be able to say what is wrong with the world and to show how those wrongs might be challenged, undone. The emphasis falls on the practical work of disassembling those racial hierarchies when they are apparent in institutions, in interpersonal life, and so on. I think that is fine, and its noble and honourable and important work, and I wish it was not necessary – but it is necessary. However, I don’t think that is enough, and I think that we do that work better – we do it much better – if we have an idea of the world we want to make. And that might be difficult but it could not be avoided. I felt dishonest after a while if I could not answer the question which asked ‘Alright then, if you’re against racism, what kind of world do you want to make? Do you want to make a world where racial differences are just natural things, and racism comes along and messes them up?’. So you get rid of racism and then we all have natural difference and that is all fine. Well, I did not find that intellectually or politically satisfying. A lot of anti-racist work is of that type. It says: ‘Nature gives us racial differences, look around the room, some of the differences you see are racial; others are not’. It’s just racism makes those differences bad. I came to a different position gradually – and somewhat reluctantly – in which I see racism as a system assembling races in the world. It’s a more difficult idea to sell, I suppose you could say, but I think that racism generates or assembles races – can I put it that way? It is not something that grows from racial difference. It creates racial difference. The history, and the genealogies of racial systems of thought, seems to me to be interpreted better when we see its dynamic unfolding. That means we have to be able to say what kind of world we want to build and inhabit. I know that isn’t going to be the end and it isn’t going to be perfect, but I’m still convinced that we will be better off without the particular forms of violence, the particular forms of cruelty, the particular forms of error that arise from racial metaphysics and racial systems of thought. We are better off without all those things, even if we know there is still lots more work to do, we are better off without those specific things. I’m not sure you can have an anti-racism which is credible unless you are able to switch into a more constructive view of the world you want to build. You might have a black liberation project, you might have an equality and diversity project, you might have a McKinsey multiculturalism project – but you won’t have an anti-racist project unless you can say the kind of world you want to see arise. Someone like Du Bois is interesting because in his nineties he decided that he was going to revert to earlier ways of looking at the world and fight over what communism could be as a basis for rethinking a world without imperial and colonial and racial domination. Well, for me, communism isn’t that option, you know. I understand why he took that turn at that point, but that is not one for me. I think we have to be bolder, I think we have to be more imaginative than we often are. We’re not encouraged to be imaginative in this area, and it may well be that solving the practical and the immediate problems in our everyday relationship with racial violence, say, or racial institutions in the police force, or the way that death so often follows contact with the police, or the functioning of carceral systems. Out of those struggles can grow that different conception of what it is to be a human being that Césaire and Fanon spoke of. Remember, Fanon said: ‘Oh my body, make of me a man who asks questions’; and then he said: ‘we are going to make a new humanism’ which is – in his language, this is not my language – a formation that corresponds to ‘the real dialectic between the body and the world’. The real one, not the racial-corporeal schema.”