ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Capital and the New Xenophobia

Xenophobia, the fear or dislike of strangers, can be seen throughout the course of history in the form of communal riots, racist attacks, religious hatred and genocide. This article traces the changes in xenophobic thinking over the past three decades and examines the unexplored relationship of xenophobia with power and capitalism. It shows how changes in capitalism have altered the construction of the stranger, defi nes xenophobia in terms of structures of power, and argues for a re-conceptualisation of "civil" and new forms of xenophobia.

It has become relatively easy to spot some forms of xenophobia: the fire bomb in the letter box of an immigrant; the Jew, Muslim or Hindu being chased down a street by skinheads; the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan; the killing of people of a different “ethnicity;” even the violent imposition of another language or an alien lifestyle on any people. These are what I bracket under “old xenophobia”: forms of xenophobia that we have become aware of largely due to our knowledge of 18th, 19th and 20th century history, culminating in the Holocaust. And yet, there seems to be newer forms of xenophobia that do not fit this old and familiar rubric. We are obviously in a phase of history when we need to not just reinterpret the mechanisms of older forms of xenophobia but also create the theoretical and cognitive structure to identify new, “civil” forms of xenophobia.

A point of departure might be necessary. Until now, we have mostly seen xenophobia as a matter of prejudice, information, inheritance, reason, emotion, etc. But actually, xenophobia is basically a matter of power. It is not so much about unreasonable or reasonable fear of strangers as it is about an unequal and unfair enactment and institutionalisation of one’s power over others. Reasoning and a power structure are central to this, but, as anyone who has read about genocidal frenzies knows, this does not happen in a bloodless manner: emotions are also at the core of both xenophobia and xenophilia. Hence one has to discuss the emotional impact of xenophobia, its reasonability, and finally the structure of power that, I argue, is essential to understanding and coping with it.

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