White noise: race, migration and the violent underground of democracy

Guest author: Rogier van Reekum

“A community that is not allowed to determine for itself who belongs to that community ceases to be a community”[i]

This quote, taken from a recent essay by journalist Joris Luyendijk, comes at a moment in his argument at which he seeks to describe an overlapping consensus between him and people who support the politics of Geert Wilders and other anti-migrant proponents. The fact that a commentator who nominally understands himself to be at the liberal progressive side of politics is able to present this principle as democratic common sense is interesting because it makes plain the elemental problem of a democratic politics of migration: ought the people dictate membership?

The statement is easily debunked. It is empirically non-sense and theoretically confused. If communities are the kinds of things that dictate their membership, then we must conclude that ‘communities’ do not exist in reality. If we want to conceptualize in- and exclusion, why would you do so by assuming that you already know who is in and who is out?

Things become even worse if we merely take the statement to be prescriptive. To raise just one question: who decided who would belong to this community at its inception and how can we be sure they decided correctly if the essential quality of that decision ought to be that the community makes it? But instead of debunking in the abstract, we should wonder what this way of thinking does in our politics.

Migration as a national injury

Luyendijk’s statement suggests that any democratically minded citizen would have to agree that migrants injure the national community simply by being alive, because even if they had gained entry at the permission of the community, their presence poses the prospect of having to deport or kill them if they would refuse to leave when the community would no longer grant their stay. Migration appears to them as a burden, and therefore sometimes as a benefit, that can only be justified through the will of the people.

Migrants are people whose presence could have been denied and who therefore have to deserve that presence in the eyes of the natives. It doesn’t matter if members of the nation define their collective identity through lofty ideals of human rights, individual freedom and solidarity, they are only compelled to extend those ideals to ‘outsiders’ if and when members have decided together to do so. Luyendijk’s statement demand of us that we deem it democratically necessary to let ‘other people’ starve, rot and die – what is happening on Greek islands, for instance – if and when the people happen to have decided so.

For decades now, public controversies over migration have been animated by this way of reasoning. A ubiquitous idea in ‘debates on migration’ is the suggestion that certain views, feelings, convictions and attitudes have not been taken seriously, have not been adequately represented, have not entered into the political determination of policy, have been ignored, dismissed or overlooked. The reason why, so go these explanatory stories, migration is such a hot issue and its politics are so ‘polarized’ is because ‘for all too long’ citizens have not been ‘heard’. It is therefore deemed understandable that voters are angry and adrift. The edifice of this argument is built on an underground that states: “a community that is not allowed to determine who belongs to that community ceases to be a community”.

Exploiting and disciplining migrant life

Dutch ‘debates’ over a mismatch between government policies and popular convictions have, already from the 1970’s onwards, began to revolve around a particular imaginary of the nation and a particular irrelevance of race.[ii] This imaginary projects Dutchness to be modern, liberal, outspoken, egalitarian, civic, pluralistic and post-racist.[iii] It is in light of this national imagination that the politics of migration began to be and often still are perceived. In this questionable light, it appears that a modern, democratic and emancipated people had allowed all kinds of ‘others’ to life among them and the natives had approached these ‘others’ with the ‘even-handed’, ‘straight’ and ‘open-minded’ inclinations that set them apart as a nation. Yet, this story of a ‘multiculturalist’ response to post-1970’s migration and difference was always already a ‘multicultural drama’. It always already included the awareness of a problem lurking at its edges. This problem was race.

If it was indeed the case that ‘the Dutch’ could and should be nationally identified by ‘tolerance’ and ‘openness’, the native rejection of migrants negated that. Initially, the predominant interpretation had been that racism lingered among the lower classes and the culturally conservative, but during the 1980’s such interpretations began to shift among esteemed commentators and representatives. The already dubious notion that racism was a regressive problem at the back end of Dutch modernity was transformed into the idea that such racism was actually instigated by the particular way in which ‘we’ tended to talk about and govern migration and its consequences.[iv]

By the end of the 1980’s a full-fledged critique of ‘accommodation’ had emerged from the very centres of policy advice and public commentary: ‘We’ had not demanded enough of ‘them’ and thereby allowed feelings of foul play among the natives to grow into resentment and rejection.

An important example can be given by looking at how two, prominent social democratic policy advisors proposed to design a civic enculturation program in the early 90’s. This is what one of them had to say about its intended effects at the time:

If one demands newcomers to adapt to Dutch society and let them achieve something by employing them, one takes away the odium of profiteers who just come in and use our institutions and provisions. So that will also affect the population, who will be more inclined to accept them and will deem this to be a just and equitable approach. In this way people can earn their own presence.[v]

It is hard to find clearer words that express the kind of policy philosophy that comes out of the mismatch narrative: the problem is not, cannot be, the fact that natives are racist and protectionist (‘the odium of profiteers’) or that migration is another way of making rights dependent on performance (‘earn their own presence’) but that ‘we’ have not demanded of ‘them’ the kind of demonstrable effort that will calm down native anxieties (‘be more inclined to accept them’). There is really no need to read between the lines here: policy is meant to attenuate injury by imposing on migrants the injuries of native dignity.

Once Dutch migration politics reached this point, at the early 1990’s, it became very hard to unravel the tight knot in which arguments over migration had been pulled: ‘We’ have been accommodating but this has not resulted in the desired results – assimilation and native calm –, so it is now time to propose policies that ‘demand’ effort on the part of migrants and will actually quell native concerns.

What followed was a decade of ‘debate’ in which the liberal image of the nation was internally split: there were those who argued that Dutch identity demanded a protection of Western values and individual liberality and there were those who argued that one and the same exceptional Dutchness demanded that we were patient and respectful of difference. What’s more, hardly any of the participants had an interest in dissuading their opponents of the idea that Dutch life was the pinnacle of modern, post-religious freedom.

Not only is it rather ridiculous to suggest that migration and its consequences had insufficiently been on the agenda during the 1980’s and 90’s, it is also wrong to think that these decades were witness to a ‘multicultural consensus’ and policy regime. In fact, what did happen can hardly support the miserable qualification of ‘tolerance’. What did happen, was a headlong flight into racist denial, colonial ignorance, liberal self-congratulation, petty managerialism, vacuous diversity speak and a responsibilisation of citizenship.[vi] The political dilemma of those in power has not been between their own ‘enlightened’ ideals and the particularisms of their constituents. It was and is between the realities of migration – people move about in search of a better life – and the working theories of democratic legitimacy that are used to evaluate whether or not someone can be trusted with one’s vote.

Moreover, those in power have refrained from articulating viable and democratic visions on migration because they mostly agree with people who might vote for them and they tell them so. Like so many people in the Netherlands they also tend to think of migration as a burden that needs to be contained and controlled, particularly when such migration stems from the ‘non-West’. Again, this has been the case for decades if not centuries.[vii]

By ostentatiously ‘listening to the people’, representatives have kept on affirming that the decision on membership rest, in the end, with ‘the people’. They have left untouched this violent underground of democracy and have, indeed, betrayed ‘the people’ because they have told them a story that cannot be true. If the actual policies of migration and difference have produced undesirable results, it is not because governing elites have ignored concerns on the ground. It is because they have persisted, often for cynical reasons, in an approach to migration that renders rights of migrant dependent on ‘good behaviour’ – to work and shut up – at the risk of expulsion while, at once, telling natives that their injured dignity will be repaired through this very exploitation and disciplining of migrant life.

The circular affirmation of racism

We are now back at Luyendijk’s statement and our current political predicament. The initial narrative – racism is over and only lingers at the margins of modern society – has fully metamorphosed into its logical conclusion: ‘multicultural idealism has backfired and its injuries can only be mended by affirming the absolute primacy of the natives and taking every opportunity – symbolic or not – to humiliate, antagonize and forcefully impose upon those who are not of this ground.’

Within the current parameters of public imagination, it seems to have become almost self-evident that citizens of European nation-states have the democratic right to do whatever they deem fit to regulate ‘their’ borders and ‘manage’ migration. The fact that ‘we, the Europeans’ choose to uphold some semblance of humanity while doing so is not something that democracy appears to demand in and of itself but is made to appear as a testament to ‘our civilization’ and possibly a sign of ‘civilizational decline’ as we allow more and more of ‘them’ to get in and make a life here.

Whatever the merits of actual multiculturalism, the Dutch memory of a ‘multicultural past’ is a full-blown political myth that structures the reality we are trying to deal with. The mythical effect of this mismatch argument is in its circular affirmation: If migration politics has not calmed down yet and produced a workable consensus, this is simply taken as proof that public representatives have not yet adapted their positions sufficiently to those of actual citizens. When will these elites/politicians/intellectuals/urbanites/cosmopolitans/ idealists/leftists learn their lesson!?

Time and again, diagnoses of mismatch prescribe a cure for the hearing impediment of representatives: follow the white noise. When- and wherever self-proclaimed ‘natives’ are making noise – it doesn’t really matter about what exactly but it helps if something Islamic or non-white is involved –, public representative should rush to the scene and listen to the noise. From this noise, they should distil a policy philosophy. A cottage industry of ‘white noise interpretation’ has, particularly since 2001, sprung up to help public representatives understand this noise. Blogs, journalists, commentators and academics became devoted to explaining what ‘normal people’ want.

The real remedy, it seems, is to drown ourselves in white thought, to delve ever deeper into the soil of white desire and to extract from that ground the rare ore that will put at ease the ‘angry mobs’, the ‘frustrated voters’, the ‘right-wing populists’, the ‘losers of globalization’ and the ‘white working classes’.

This brings us, again, to the relevance of race. During the 1970’s and 80’s, there were people trying to interject race and racism into the Dutch ‘debates’ about migration. These attempts were frustrated as powerful public figures and representative, almost exclusively white men, turned their attention to the ‘native anxieties’ and ‘integration policies’ that would become the core of the issue. What’s more, talk of race was inappropriate to their very conception of the problem: migrants needed to be ‘included’ into the nation without agitating lingering native racism. Race could only frustrate those attempts as it presented a mode of difference impervious to native-led ‘emancipation’. Race did not measure a distance to be closed or a cultural lag to be evened out. Race was an injury that couldn’t be mended by the efforts of the migrant and therefore deemed irrelevant to the ‘debate’.

Thus, race had to be left behind. By doing so, Dutch politics has set itself on a path that leads, inevitably, back to race. This time, however, it is not so much the racial difference of the other, but the racial ground of the nation, the underground of democracy.

Participants in ‘debates’ on migration have become incapable of contradicting the validity of this racial underground and thereby have become incapable of effectively disagreeing with each other. Everyone must, in the end, agree that only ‘the people’ can say who can be part of ‘the people’. It is for this reason that Dutch democracy, and the liberal democracies of the West, are today so defenceless against those who again speak of ‘the white race’ and its ‘honour’. It is also for this reason that any effective disagreement in a democratic debate on migration can only come from those who speak clearly about race, who succeed in returning race into the midst of its denial, who disturb and rip up the racial underground of democracy.

We have been blessed, for reasons I cannot fathom, by the fact we have such people in our midst, people who are able to express ‘the thing’ that denies expression, who enable us to encounter the histories and realities by which we have occupied a place in the world. Significantly, these are often people ‘from elsewhere’ and descendants of ‘others’. From them we can learn how to proceed and find our way out of the hole in which we have sunken for so long, dragging the world with us. It is to them that we must now listen, not because they ‘haven’t been heard’ or because they are ‘victims’, but because they express the difference between what is called ‘democracy’ and what democracy demands of us.

Rogier van Reekum is an assistant professor at the department of Public Administration and Sociology of Erasmus University Rotterdam. He is currently working on issue formations of refugee settlement. He has previously conducted research into the visualisation of irregular migration across Europe as part of the Monitoring Modernity ERC-project. Rogier has published on border visuality, Dutch nationalism, place making, citizenship & migration politics, immigration policy, Mediterranean border control and segregated education. He is an editor at Sociologie and Krisis, journal for contemporary philosophy. Contact: vanreekum[at]fsw.eur.nl


[i] The original Dutch text reads: ‘Een gemeenschap die niet zelf mag bepalen wie tot die gemeenschap behoort, houdt op een gemeenschap te zijn.’

[ii] See, for instance, Weiner 2014; Wekker & Lutz 2001; Van Ginkel 1999; Tinnemans 1994; Van Dijk 1992.

[iii] Elaboration on this: Van Reekum 2016.

[iv] Van Reekum & Duyvendak 2012.

[v] The original Dutch text reads: ‘Als je aan nieuwkomers eisen stelt om zich aan te passen aan de Nederlandse samenleving en ze een prestatie laat leveren door ze in het arbeidsproces in te schakelen, dan neem je ook van hen het odium weg van profiteurs die hier maar binnenkomen om van onze instellingen en voorzieningen gebruik te maken. Dat zal dus ook zijn invloed hebben naar de bevolking, die hen dan eerder zal accepteren en dat een rechtvaardige en evenwichtige aanpak zal vinden. Iemand verdient op deze manier zijn eigen aanwezigheid.’ In: Van der Zwan, A. & H. Entzinger, ‘‘Integratie migrant begint bij nieuwkomer’’, June 14 1994, NRC Handelsblad.

[vi] Only a glance at only some of the literature on this point: Essed & Nimako 2006; Wekker & Lutz 2001; Essed 1990, 1994; Ghorashi 2003; Schuster 1999; Jones 2007; Duyvendak et al. 2013; Vink, 2007, Rath, 1991; Tinnemans 1994; Van der Valk 2002; Van Houdt 2014; Uitermark, 2012; Van der Veer 1995; Prins 2004; Fermin 1997; Van Reekum, 2016; Schinkel, 2017; Schrover 2010; Bosma 2013; Laarman 2013.

[vii] Hondius 2011; Heijs 1995.

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