How does society cope with growing exclusionary tendencies, if these tendencies have been present all along? This was a question posed by Prof. Dorian Bell, literature and Jewish studies, University of California, Santa Cruz, to an auditorium in the A.D. White House on Wednesday night, during a lecture that examined the rise of viral populism and what it has in store for America and beyond.
“White racial resentment is changing what you think we know about racism,” Bell said, describing his forthcoming book Unfinished Business: Anti-Semitism and the Long Age of Empire.
Bell’s work looks at how racism, Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia coincide and differ in the modern age. He argues that a significant force behind growing trends of the two biases is that of capitalism, and the perceived threat to upper classes of an “other.”
“What’s going here distresses both for its familiarity and its novelty,” Bell said. “Capitalists always encourage some to secure their relative privilege against perceived threats arriving from further down the socioeconomic ladder.”
These “threats” include people of lower income but most especially minority groups, Bell said.
“Industrialization turns those whose lives don’t have roots against ever more uprooted immigrants arriving from afar,” Bell said. “Any number of strangers, blacks, Latinos, the Irish, have played the ‘threatening role,’ crystallizing anxieties about downward mobility according to shifting local circumstances.”
Bell cautioned against these biases, characterizing them as a tactic that certain classes employ to hold onto power.
People turn towards racism and xenophobia, Bell said, because of the economic trends of recent years and fear of losing money or status. However, he said, decentralization of economic power from the West is happening “irrespective of the migrant crisis.”
He directed attendees toward the “elephant graph” of inequality, which charts changes in income distribution worldwide from 1988 to 2008.
This graph displays how the global elite have experienced extreme growth in wealth over the past decades, with the upper middle class largely stagnating and the global lower middle class increasing as well. The poorest class has largely been left behind.
With these shifts, Bell said, arise situations in which declining middle-class wages have contributed to sentiments against minority groups, saying that those suffering from “capitalist miseries” have turned against immigrants as a scapegoat for their woes.
“The crassest of demagogues want to exploit economic anxiety in fairly little terms,” he said. “[They said that] migrants are coming to take your jobs.”
Because of this, he said, history is beginning to repeat itself.
“One effect could be to make the resulting variety of Islamophobia every bit as sociologically sticky as the modern conspiratorial Anti-Semitism that arose in the 19th century,” he said.
And these biases are continuing, Bell argued, because of recent increases in “viral populism” worldwide.
“What strikes one about the current populist surge is the extent to which it drives some of its local racial charge from solidarity networks spanning Europe and the Atlantic,” he said. “Think of Nigel Farage, Brexit’s anti-immigrant architect, paying respects to Trump.”
One can possible accept that on an American scale, Bell said, people can accept that “a middle-class voter may have chosen Trump out of economic exasperation without sharing Trump’s racial animus toward non-white Americans.”
“But on a global scale, Trump’s conviction that good-paying, middle class jobs belong in America requires an exclusionary attitude toward those poor, non-white inhabitants of the global South,” he said.
Johnathan Stimpson ’21 contributed reporting to this article.