Our Postcolonial Moment: European Belonging and the Welfare State

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Anouk de Koning is assistant professor at the department of Anthropology and Development Studies, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. For the Sociological Review she wrote a blog reflecting on historical structures and shifts that can shed light on today’s racialized politics.   

For many of us, the present moment is dominated by the triumphs of Brexit, Donald Trump and the growing prominence of far right, anti-immigrant parties in many parts of Europe. Rather than stopping the far right tide, the recent elections in the Netherlands have by and large confirmed this trend. Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant and anti-Islam party came in second to ruling prime minister Rutte’s conservative party. The latter has increasingly adopted anti-immigration rhetoric in an attempt to lure Wilders voters.

Even before recent electoral results, years of relative indifference to the plight of people drowning in the Mediterranean in their attempt to reach the prosperity and safety of Europe challenged Europe’s self-image as civilized and humane. The commitment to values that many believed to be widely shared – a sense of common humanity, a minimum of tolerance and respect for constitutional rights – turned out to be rather thin. An ongoing humanitarian and moral crisis for some, the numbers of people attempting to reach Europe have also fueled anti-immigrant sentiments.

These are clearly historical times. In my current project, Reproducing Europe: Migrant Parenting and Contested Citizenship, we ask how today’s anxious racialized politics interact with increasingly diverse lives on the ground, and what kind of Europe is being produced in the process. In this blog, I take a more long-term perspective to reflect on some of the historical structures and shifts that can shed light on the present moment. I argue that the increasing hollowness of post WWII national projects and the enduring afterlives of the colonial provide a crucial backdrop to the anxious, disgruntled times that we live in.

Welfare state sensibilities

Today’s political developments must be understood against the background of the demise of the post WWII national project and the ideas about progress and morality that were part of that project. After the Second World War, in much of Europe, the welfare state became the embodiment of a national project that promised to take everyone along in its progress, spelling out middle class aspirations for all. Dreams of higher education and white collar labor, of moving out of difficult or modest working class lives into the enlightened bliss of the middle class were widely shared across the globe, not only in post-war reconstruction Europe, but also in the new developmental regimes of the decolonizing world.

In the 1980s this dream started to lose its appeal, in part because it did not deliver. With the oil and debt crises looming, neoliberal globalization and a start of state retrenchment, these promises were increasingly less likely to materialize for many in the working classes and lower middle classes. In the context of the demise of this national project, many stopped seeing educated elites and the notions of enlightenment, progress and civilization they embodied, as examples to be followed. They were rather viewed as a privileged establishment to be regarded with disdain and to be ridiculed. Alternative projects to recruit these disaffected segments of the population were most successfully articulated on the far right, in nationalist, racialized terms.

Colonial afterlives

Ghassan Hage reminds us that the colonial provides a central backdrop to this scene. The postcolonial Europe we live in today is built upon centuries of colonial inequalities and still reflects many of those structures. The first decades after the Second World War represented relatively optimistic times, with welfare states under construction in Europe and new postcolonial regimes promising their newly independent constituencies similar dreams of progress and middle class lives. Various decades of intermittent crises and growth have dampened and even dashed such dreams. Global inequalities loom large. While most lives in the Global North are ‘insured lives’, with states guaranteeing a minimum living standard to most of their citizens, many lives in the Global South, are ‘uninsured’, with large segments of the population left to fend for themselves in often scarce environments. The border policing of Fortress Europe primarily serves to maintain these boundaries between insured and uninsured lives.

Within Europe, our sense of who and what belongs and what is normal for ‘us’ and normal for ‘them’ also reflects such (post)colonial structures. This is apparent in what David Theo Goldberg has called racial Europeanization. This racial regime combines a taboo on discussing race and a sense of being post-racial with a racialization of European selves as white and non-white people as not or only conditionally European. The current resurgence of racism in the Netherlands illustrates the point. This racism not only targets Muslims who are collectively portrayed as a threat to ‘our way of life’, but also non-white Dutch activists who stand up to racist practices and traditions. In less spectacular ways, it is also part of mainstream integration discourses that conceptualize society as homogeneously progressive, tolerant, trouble free and – implicitly – white Dutch, and various ‘others’ as outside of, and a burden or threat to that society.

Border policing 

With the retrenchment of welfare states, and increased migration to Europe due to war, economic inequalities and climate change, the borders between insured and uninsured lives are under pressure, causing severe anxieties among those who have always known themselves to be on the insured side of the equation. Expectations of growing welfare for all and a belief that one’s children will have it even better are fading, substituted by a disgruntled sense of impending loss. Humanistic sensibilities and complacent moral truths are being questioned, even ridiculed as naïve. Many people seem happy to use their vote to advertise their disillusionment or even disdain for what in the US context are often named ‘liberal values’.

Many in Europe seem to connect their sense of loss to the influx of others. In their assessments, they often rely on the very racialized and racist narratives and hierarchies that Europe was said to have left behind. As Hage argues, the sense of being surrounded by barbarians, once particularly strong in settler colonial societies, has become a globalized condition in spaces of ‘insured life’. The threat of barbarians at the gates is used to justify drastic, even barbaric measures by self-proclaimed civilized actors. As a consequence, we are living in times of hardening borders, which are policed not only at the edges of Europe, but also in its streets, work places, schools and social media.

What now?

Earlier national promises of a rising tide for all have come to ring hollow, and the enlightened Europe with lofty ideals has revealed its reliance on (post)colonial inequalities and exclusions. This moment raises many questions, and offers no easy answers. Rekindling momentum for a more equal and humane Europe seems a daunting task. How can we convince more people in Europe of the need to go beyond blatant global (post)colonial inequalities, and to give up their racialized, exclusionary claims to European belonging?

Fortunately, this is not the only story to be told, or the only reality in Europe today. My Reproducing Europe project zooms in on negotiations of the welfare state in order to capture the conflicted making of a new, diverse Europe. We examine encounters between migrant parents and welfare state actors in Amsterdam, Milan and Paris to see how European belonging is negotiated in a context that combines highly diverse urban landscapes with anxious, racialized public discourses. It is clear that on the ground, among street-level bureaucrats, political visions and practices do not align readily with retrenchment logics of self-help and big society, or with unidirectional, racialized visions of society. On the larger political canvas, far right rhetoric and their mainstream adaptations are not unchallenged. In southern Europe, where the economic crisis has hit hardest, protest politics have turned to idealist left-wing imaginations and parties rather than to the far right, while many, by way of their everyday practices, have reinstated solidarity as the political theme of our times.

To conclude 

We may do well to understand our present moment in its long-term historical context. I have highlighted two elements that seem particularly relevant for our understanding of Europe today: first, the demise of post WWII national projects and the abandonment of notions of progress and civilization connected to them, and second, the unveiling of the inequalities and violence on which Europe’s affluence is based. For now, European publics seem divided over how to deal with the unravelling of Europe’s self-image of progress and civilization. Popular support for harsh immigration controls, racialized claims to European belonging and racist assimilation politics remain strong, but, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, such exclusionary political trends are answered by movements that stress solidarity and shared humanity, and even a willingness to acknowledge the link between colonial legacies and global inequalities. These are interesting times.

This article was originally published in the Sociological Review on the 25th of March 2017.

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