R.C. Smith  R.C. SmithFounder / Editor

R.C. Smith is a researcher in Philosophy of Science. Currently a Teaching-Scholar at the Cooperative Institute of Transnational Studies, he is the founder of Heathwood Institute and Press where he also presently serves as Director / Executive Editor. Robert’s early research has been shaped largely by his interest in “extensively broad critical study”. Having spent most of his twenties researching in Frankfurt School critical theory and in what he describes as “engaged critical social philosophy”, his focus has been particularly honed on a cross-disciplinary and cross-field research programme spanning the many intersections of social sciences, humanities and history. Robert is the author of several books and over 100 academic articles.

Key Series: Race, Class, Gender, Ability: Cultural Studies and Critical IntersectionsThis publication is also part of Heathwood’s project on Crisis Capitalism and Creeping Fascism – Bigotry, Racism, and the Rise of the Right in the Age of Neoliberal BarbarismStephen Eric Bronnerthe-bigot-why-prejudice-persists
The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists
235 pp. – $40
ISBN: 978-0300162516
Yale University Press, 2014

By R.C. Smith

Two weeks ago, 71 refugees from Syria were found dead in an abandoned lorry in Austria. This marked yet another dark day in Europe, the sadness of which was further enforced by reports from international relief officials that 150 people had drown in the Mediterranean. This followed the deaths of at least another 52 people, who had suffocated in the hold of an overcrowded boat found the day before. Then, just a few days ago, a photo of a drowned boyadded to an already despairing narrative, the reality of which, truth be told, is as historically longstanding as it is systemic. According to the U.N., more than 2,500 people have died at sea this year. This figure does not include those believed to be victims in the recent sinking off Libya. In 2014, 3,500 people were said to have died or were lost while trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. These numbers come as the United Nations refugee agency report revealed the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe had reached 310,000 this year, up from 219,000 in 2014. Then there are the countless thousands if not millions of other people around the world displaced, starving, caught between the suffering of their geography, tyrannical governments, and vicious western neoliberal international policy.

What we are witnessing today is possibly the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. In response to this crisis, the dominant reaction or narrative expressed by a large part of the European and North American populous has been one of blatant racism, prejudice and ideology. In the UK in particular, the response to contemporary crises, as Molly Scott Catorecently reflected, has largely resulted in the development of a narrative which will remind the progressive reader of the darkest days of Europe. The Daily Mail’s headline from the 1930s about “German Jews Pouring into This Country” is echoed today in such headlines as, “The Swarm on our Streets”. But it is not only the Daily Mail or other explicitly right-wing media promoting an openly racist, xenophobic, bigoted language and politics. Prejudice today permeates many mainstream media organizations and channels. It also propagates in many formerly “moderate” politicians and public speakers, not to mention through certain avenues of culture and daily patterns of discussion. In other words, as it tends to happen in a time of capitalist crisis, there has been a notable rise in prejudice.

Laurie Penny was not wrong when she commented in a recent article that “the xenophobic, Islamophobic and, most obviously, the anti-immigrant rhetoric has ramped up everywhere”[1]. What’s worse: as the anti-immigrant narrative shows signs of deepening, a new reality emerges – that of creeping fascism. Although this last observation is extremely important, it is not the problem of emerging strands of fascist politics that I would like discuss here. Rather, it is the manner in which bigotry pervades and permeates the contemporary social context that is the concern of this essay. Aside from the structural and systemic injustices of global capitalism and the destructive force of western international policy, if the “refugee crisis” has revealed anything it is precisely to what extent exclusionary ideology and racist and prejudiced beliefs cavort under the cover of populism in Europe today. Albeit in different circumstances, a similar narrative in North America very much also attests to the same reality: the bigot is not an isolated phenomenon. Prejudice is pervasive. The bigot, traditionally perceived as the “white skinhead” – the white, rural male on the fringes of liberal society – is a myth. The truth is, the presence of the bigot today is widespread.

Outside of racist and prejudiced political parties and populist leaders – that is, the spectacle of a society drunk on the “the perverse grin and the endless discourse of shock and humiliation”[2] – I would like to consider here how and why the bigot is omnipresent in contemporary society. It is certainly true that the deepening of capitalist crises brings with it a rise of xenophobic, racist rhetoric.[3] Even in general sociological terms, we already know that modern political-economy has racist and highly prejudiced roots.[4] Modern capitalist institutions have a directly racist, prejudice-driven legacy. Recent examples of institutional and racist violence in the United States and the United Kingdom are notable in this regard. But outside of a critique of institutions and structures and systems, it is the ubiquitous existence of the bigot on an individual and community level which takes direct focus in this essay.

There is a reason why, as Molly Scott Cato reflects, a “deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices” have arisen “in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror”.[5] There is a reason why there is a “parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s”.[6] Recent economic developments surely play a significant role. But in order to grasp the problem of the bigot in general, a systematic and interdisciplinary analysis of the persistence of prejudice is required. Countless articles have been written in recent years about the increase of racist and homophobic behaviour being a socio-economic problem, a result of inequality, the outcome of poor education, a consequence of the ideological agenda of politicians and the media, and so forth. There is certainly a practical truth to these different analyses of, and explanations for, contemporary trends. But in each case, the innumerable articles and commentary lack a broader critical theory of society in their attempt to grasp the reality of racist, anti-immigrant and generally prejudiced language and politics. This is one reason why it is no longer enough to respond to the dominant narrative in the era of neoliberal crises by exclaiming that prejudice is unethical, irrational or violent; that the Bigot’s beliefs are unfounded; that they are principled on colonialism; or that his or her reactionary politics is ideological – rooted in structures of domination. Persistent fightback in the form of an endless stream of articles and commentary in popular media is useful in the maintenance of important flood walls – to fight and resist against the tidal wave of prejudice – but at some point it becomes merely another shot in the war of rhetoric. Contemporary popular discourse requires critical intervention and grounding, if it is to successfully combat bigotry. But such an intervention requires fine incisions, precise critique and sharp theoretical formulation – it requires a fundamental analysis of bigotry in all its complexity in relation to ‘the crisis of the state, law, economy, religion, in short, the entire material and spiritual culture of humanity’ (to paraphrase Max Horkheimer).

Thankfully, it is just such a complexity of study that Stephen Eric Bronner executes in The Bigot – Why Prejudice Persists (2014), as he examines bigotry in its various dimensions – the anthropological, historical, psychological, sociological, economic, and political.

What makes the bigot tick?

the bigot - why prejudice persistsWithin a few pages, l could tell that Bronner’s study was the sort desperately needed. Though I do not pretend to offer a thorough treatment of his book, what I will say is that The Bigot provides the basis for further development of a critical theory of prejudice. On the one hand, Bronner’s analysis represents a timely critical intervention. More than just a passionate study from a person who has spent years working to progress political philosophy and critical theory, Bronner’s book finely weaves an interdisciplinary analysis of bigotry and prejudice, offering individuals, academics, popular media contributors and writers, as well as anti-oppression movements a fundamental philosophical and practical framework for understanding the bigot. With an energy that might remind one of the first time they read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (1944), Bronner offers a significant contribution to a rich tradition of analysis and critique, ranging from existentialism and the Frankfurt School to Freudian psychoanalysis and humanistic psychology, to even Marx and Engels, as he dissects the cognitive plane of the bigot’s existence. This mode of cognition is revealed not only to be rooted in structures of social privilege; Bronner argues convincingly that the bigot is actually also one of the most malignant products of Modernity.

In a sense, one could say that the broader view of the bigot that Bronner presents is one which recognizes the bigot’s existence as being interwoven in the entirety of the social process – by which I mean to say that the psychology of the bigot is, in some respects, a projection or exemplification of what lies beneath the surface of existing systems and structures. Inasmuch that the bigot is a product of modernity, as Bronner explains, on my reading I think one could also argue that the existence of the bigot is a result of, or at least has some connection to, the dialectic of enlightenment. Indicative of broader social processes – the tendency of enlightenment failure, as we read in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment(1964/2002) – the social practice of the bigot today essentially reproduces dominant forms of social activity. Unaware of the ways in which s/he is bound with social processes of production and reproduction, of reasons regress to irrationality, the bigot’s opinions, Bronner reflects, “are set before he enters into disputation or engagement with the world” (p. 110). Ironically conformist to the coercive, hierarchical and authoritarian paradigm which is the source of his/her oppression, the genealogy of the bigot’s character structure is one principled in the repressed subjectivity of the individual who silences critical faculties, prereflectively submitting to dominant instrumental values. In a sense, one could say that there is an element of social determination here, as the bigot is an expression of the coercive and authoritarian apparatus of modern society. In practical terms, the diagnosis within Dialectic of Enlightenment fits well with Bronner’s overall study of the prejudiced subject (a point to which I shall return):

Whatever experiences the bigot has serve only to reinforce inherited patterns of thought and imagery. Seeking to restrict the opportunities of his victim, he ironically restricts his own capacity to experience, learn, and reflect on reality. For all the bluster […] modernity tends to weaken the bigot’s sense of self and strengthen his propensity to embrace authoritarian politics. It is characteristic of that “prejudiced subjects want to be taken care of like children […] they want to exploit their parents like they exploit other people. […] not being self-reliant, they need support and comfort, first from the parents and then from parent substitutes.” Thus they are easily manipulated, quickly enraged, and prone to acts of aggression (pp. 63-64).

For the reader familiar with critical theory, this last point may not at first seem like a revolutionary, earth-shattering conclusion. But it is how Bronner formulates his argument, how he formulates all the right questions, which makes The Bigot – Why Prejudice Persists a seminal study. What we read is a fundamental account of why prejudice appeals to the bigot, how s/he chooses their target, and what impulses are common to his or her worldview. We are essentially presented with a dialectical account: that is, an account which balances the broader brush strokes of a universal picture with the finer dabs of incisive detail about the particularity of bigotry in its many forms. This balance is one of the many applaudable aspects of Bronner’s analysis, as he works through the general and the particular, phenomenologically sketching a portrait of the bigot in practice: what constitutes the bigot’s existence, what characterizes his or her cognition, and, significantly, what underlines the bigot’s claims in effort to preserve his or her sense of diminishing power.

On the other hand, the book is incredibly easy to read – a credit to Bronner’s style. In immersing myself in its pages, I was reminded of the most penetrating, sharp and moving pieces of existential-phenomenological literature. As deeply theoretically informed The Bigot is, the book is written from a place never far from lived experience. This allows Bronner’s study of such a complex phenomenon as the bigot, to remain accessible to a diversity of readers. It is as theoretically substantial as it is experientially reflective. Analyzing the systematic, all-encompassing mindset of the bigot, Bronner reveals its appeal, motivations, and complex relation to society’s historic unfolding. He shows how and why prejudice energizes cognition of, and even practically shapes, the conspiratorial and paranoid worldview of the “true believer”, “the elitist”, and “the chauvinist”, illuminating in the process the social, historical and political basis of mass paranoia and exclusionary ideology. Relating back to a broader critical theory of society, we come to understand in concrete and practical terms why the bigot is an ever-presence in mainstream conservative and right-wing movements, and also why prejudiced subjectivity is never too far from the sort of fascistic politics witnessed in the 20thCentury. We also learn – and perhaps this is most crucial – that the bigot today, who is a ubiquitous presence in contemporary society, is a fabricated relativist and a paradoxical opportunist (pp. 17-19), often preferring to slyly shift about the mainstream in order to support, influence or design populist policies and thus also shape populist politics that aggressively set upon whatever targets of his/her contempt.

Educating the bigot’s enemies

Written not in the naivety of the idea “of converting bigots”, Bronner makes his aim clear: to instead “help educate the bigot’s enemies” (p. 3). Conversely, it is a testament to Bronner’s precise and sharp conceptual analysis that The Bigot has received some notable reactionary reviews, such as Naomi Schaefer Riley’s piece in Books & Culture – A Christian Review. Even when announcing that I would be writing this essay, I received several interesting comments from the public which, in essence, exemplify the exact widespread portrait of the bigot that Bronner strives to capture and examine. In achieving its ambitious aims, his book ultimately challenges the reality of the deeply ingrained racist, prejudiced language and culture throughout much of the western world. Inasmuch that existing racist culture – the categories of black and white and brown, which children are subject to early on in their development – usually eventually turns into a racist knowledge and language, however subtle or in-direct in the subject, it is the manner in which prejudice embeds itself in the popular psyche that represents a challenge for us all. This culture – a dominant culture of real coercive legacy – historically produced and continues to produce racist significations, in which we all must introspectively reflect upon and defeat. And this is a point that Bronner is certainly well aware of. He writes, for example, that we cannot “compartmentalize” bigotry, because “prejudices such as anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, sexism and religious intolerance […] intersect in their ideological and political expressions” (p. 4). In another way, “the bigot rarely only has one target for his hatred”, thus, in theory and in practice, “solidarity in combating such clusters of hatred requires illuminating what is shared by all yet irreducible to none” (p. 4).

The fight against bigotry, prejudice, hate – or oppression and domination writ large – is a fight we must all take up. But the difficulty for anti-oppression movements is, in part, the general complication of identifying bigotry in practice. Of course certain forms of bigotry and prejudice are easy to identify, just as certain forms of racist knowledge and language are easy to identify. But not all instances of racism or prejudice are easy to see, becoming all the more difficult to identify when we start to analyze bigotry on the level of structures and systems and institutions. This again is why critical theory should aim to assist individuals and movements in understanding the complexity of anti-oppression struggle today. Bracketing this point until the conclusion of my review, one important way Bronner’s study helps us moving forward is that it provides an accessible theoretical foundation to understand, for example, how and why the dominant racist narrative in an era of neoliberal capitalist crises is an exemplification of the all-pervasive presence of the bigot. Ubiquitous, diffuse, the bigot is no longer limited to the identity of the “white skinhead” or the neo-Nazi. Instead, the struggle we face today against oppression is rooted in the fact that the bigot “is elusive” (p. 195). Moreover, “No political or economic reform is secure and no cultural advance is safe from the bigot, who is always fighting on many fronts at once” (p. 194). Thus, “Remedies that deal with one realm don’t necessarily carry over when engaging with another”, as the bigot “appears in one arena only to disappear and then reappear elsewhere” (p. 195).

The professor, the artist, the bricklayer, the politician, the dentist, the gardener, the shop owner, the neighbour, the labourer, the hairdresser, the data processor – the omnipresence of the bigot is not only a result of the diffusion of the many conditions, characteristics, boundaries and exclusionary identities of prejudiced subjectivity. The simple fact is that “the bigot is not always a religious zealot, a contemptuous elitist, or an embittered chauvinist. The bigot is more than the role he plays. He can be a parent, a neighbor, a worker, a professional, a consumer, and a friend. He is often polite, hospitable, charitable, and nice to animals. His degree of obsession differs” (p. 86). In other words, the bigot does not always openly express his prejudice or assume readily identifiable prejudiced identities. Unlike the clear and direct outburst of prejudiced subjectivities and violent neoliberal psychologies often personified, for example, in the form of right-wing political parties and leaders in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Greece, France, Holland, and elsewhere; the everyday bigot isn’t typically “the face of a political system mired in corruption, an economic system that is as ruthless as it is authoritarian”.[7] Instead, the everyday bigot generally likes to assume the role of the “everyman”, often empathizing in his/her delusion with the struggle of what s/he perceives as “white prejudice” or “white oppression” at the hands of the Other.

***

In short, we learn in Bronner’s book the basic characteristics of an ongoing reality: that there is no more a deluded cognition than the one which, in moral panic[8], turns the structural and systemic reality of social, political and economic crises into a dominant and violent cycle of ideological rationale. The general, perverted ideological rationale I am alluding to here, is one not only locked in a cycle of increasingly bigoted and prejudiced rhetoric, presented as ‘uncomfortable truth’[9] (i.e., the ideological construction of a set of doctrines which form the basis for a highly distorted interpretation of reality). It is the sort of rationale also locked in the cognitive process of ideological displacement:[10] that is, the deflecting away from the source of contemporary crises, instead directing resentment toward the immigrant, the refugee, the homosexual – the Other – who is said to be responsible for all one’s social trauma, suffering and struggle.[11]

The bigot, a counter-revolutionary in spirit, is actually directly connected to existing modes of domination. The bigot’s existence is principled, one could say, on coercive power. Rooted in structures of social privilege, the bigot’s existence is characterized by fear – one could say an existential level of fear: that is, a “fear that the forces of modernity are destroying his social privileges, his feeling of self-worth, and his world” (p. 22). Moreover, in fear or in a sense of threatenedness regarding the undermining of his/her belief system (pp. 22-23), the bigot’s sense of self is fueled by religious conviction or dogma of whatever variety as well as inherited knowledge, and thus also by a totalized sense of the world (pp. 100-101). “All the roles played by the bigot buttress an “affirmative culture” supposedly superior to any other” (p. 100).

The decisive characteristic of this culture, according to Herbert Marcuse, is its “assertion of a universally obligatory, eternally better and more valuable world that must be unconditionally affirmed: a world essentially different from the factual world of the daily struggle for existence, yet realizable by every individual ‘from within’ without any transformation of the state of fact” […] None of the bigot’s roles allows him to employ language as a medium for illuminating what is intellectually unknown: it exists merely to affirm what has already been intuitively disclosed to him. As a true believer, an elitist, or a chauvinist, the bigot is thus provided with an entirely self-referential way of living in the world (pp. 100-101)

In a sense, the bigot is consumed by his or her totalized experiential orientation with the phenomenal world.[12] On this understanding we can see how the bigot’s sense of self is so intimately entwined in the deceptions of his/her rationale, ideals, and compensations – a cognition of privilege, power and domination. Prejudice, then, as we read in The Bigot, is more than a superficial complex. The roots of the bigot’s prejudice reach all the way down to the individual’s securing of his/her existential worth, and his/her “identification with the world in which he came to be what he is” (p. 100). This remarkably progressive insight by Bronner is what gives his account its critical normative thrust – its normative foundation – as he is able to ground a fundamental critique of bigotry, or so I claim, in a social-historical framework of subject (de)formation and development.

In reference to one of the many penetrating theses to be found in the Frankfurt School tradition of thought, as well as that of Sartrean existentialism, my reading of Bronner’s study is one which acknowledges this notion of the (de)formation of the subject as being fundamental in our understanding of bigotry in relation to the historic unfolding of the structures and systems of modern society. That the bigot represents a certain form of cognition – a highly delusional, paranoid, alienated and terrified mode of being – means that what we’re up against today is both a deeply ingrained prejudiced subjectivity, and also the systems and structures which produce and reproduce that subjectivity.

One can imagine here, for example, a twist on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus; but I personally prefer a Frankfurt School inspired view: that bigotry is simultaneously systemic and developmental, structural and subjective. It is the product of modernity insofar that it is a product of the genesis of the modern subject: today this developmental process concerns the neoliberal subject, who, as the culmination of ongoing (de)formation in late-capitalist society, moves ever-more toward blocking, nullifying or stunting of the critical capacities of a well-functioning ego.[13] Is it any wonder that neoliberalism has coincided with an increase in the belief in white privilege; with a terrifyingly violent psychology; with the deepening of racist bias of many institutions, perhaps most profoundly the prison-industrial complex; or with the intensification of the reproduction of racial disparities?[14] The complex reality we face is that the existence of the bigot is tied-up in a dynamic, historically unfolding counter-revolutionary process.

The bigot in relation to a theory of the (de)formation of the subject

It is around this point that I wish Bronner developed his argument in more detail and in richer colour. Perhaps it is the critical theorist in me, but I wish that he took more time to explain and develop an analysis of the relation between existing capitalist structures and systems and the genesis of the bigot. This is not to say, as I’ve alluded above, that an analysis of the genesis of the bigot is entirely absent from Bronner’s wonderful and gripping study. He comments, for instance, that the bigot’s self “derives from power-protected inwardness” (p. 105), a diagnosis of which refers back to the essentialism of the bigot’s belief system (i.e., the development of a totalized experiential orientation). As a petrified subject, similar in a way to what we read in Adorno’s own account, the bigot “displaces reality” and “closes himself off from questioning reality’s actual character and complexity” (p. 104). Diversity, divergence, the possibility of otherwise[15] – the experiential ‘moreness’ of experience[16] – not to mention new ideas, new choices and, indeed, revolutionary politics, produce intense anxiety for him/her (p.104). The application of homogenous stereotypes, the employment of instrumental rationality and “identity thinking” (Adorno once more), represents a deep existential and ideological refusal in the bigot to recognize anything that may oppose his or her (false) sense of ultimate security in the world (pp. 104-105). Belief of course takes a “dogmatic and ostentatious form” in the bigot, not least because, again, one’s self confidence – the very fibers of one’s sense of self-constitution – is “tinged with hysterical fears of contradiction”, even though the neurotic-like and highly repressed patterns of actions and statements of the bigot exist according to an ultimately highly contradictory psychic paradigm. Thus we get in the United States and the United Kingdom today racist, prejudiced and authoritarian forms of right-wing libertarianism: such as in attempts by UKIP and The Tea Party, ‘to mesh libertarian capitalism with a parochial populism preoccupied with family values, religion, and a mythical vision of community’ (p. 168).

The ultimately dominant, authoritarian and coercive politics of the bigot – however it may be formulated – is understandable, too, if we consider, similar to what I argued in Consciousness and Revolt (2013), that prejudice requires a certain closing down and conscious stunting of the subject. “Each role played by the bigot”, writes Bronner, “requires unthinking submission to what Sigmund Freud termed the “cultural superego” (p. 102). It is understandable, then, why “Myths have always held a particular attraction for the bigot” (p. 54), especially when it comes to his/her politics. In short: myths “offer an intricate network of symbols and meanings for making sense of life even today. They evince desires, illuminate experiences, alleviate fears, and raise hopes. Mythological thinking provides structure. But it does so in a prelogical fashion that pays little attention to critical reflection or the transformation of powers of human agency. The world of myth is fixed and unalterable even as it is often erratic and chaotic. It is a world dominated by fate in which one can explain one’s woes without reference to individual responsibility” (p. 54). Insofar that “Myths are easily adaptable to the self-serving outlook of the bigot”, enabling the individual “to withdraw from history”, the main point is that mythological thinking largely represents “the bigot’s conceptual apparatus” (p.55).

Conversely and additionally, it is striking how much Bronner’s analysis of the analytic structure of the bigot echoes Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the bourgeois subject in Dialectic of Enlightenment. We read in Adorno and Horkheimer’s seminal study, for example, a critique of the standardizing impulse of the modern subject, in which enlightenment reason reverts to myth, serving as a mode of instrumental consciousness typical of the repressive cycles of the bigot’s cognitive mode of experience as illuminated by Bronner. The bigot, similar to the bourgeois subject, is shut off from experiential coherence[17]. Pre-reflectively experiencing that which constitutes his/her world of self-deceiving belief – or “bad faith” in Sartrean terms – the bigot’s cognitive plane of action manifests as a lasting repression of sense, reflex and emotional responsiveness. In a way, I think this lasting repression serves the purpose of control: not only outward control and domination of the bigot toward the Other, but to also subdue the subject in one’s self. The bigot’s closing down thus plays a duel role: a pre-reflective mode of domination and coercive power that not only draws rigid distinctions between friend and enemy (p.57), but essentially suppresses the unfolding process of self-development.

In another way, one could say that the bigot represents the deepening of surplus repression (to play on Marcuse) – that is, the opposite of healthy subject (self-)development which requires the individual to be open to diversity, divergence or the possibility of otherwise and therefore also to other people and themselves. On this level of analysis, we can begin to understand the sort of insensitivity characteristic of the bigot’s subjective experience. Rather than an attentive and sensitive mode of experience, the bigot is shut-down to the world of multifarious phenomena; because everyone and everything is reduced – preemptively – to an object of the bigot’s already established worldview. One can expand on these claims by suggesting that domination and violence enacted by the bigot is actually the purest expression of the status of his/her subjectivity and epistemology.

But, again, if there is a problem with Bronner’s analysis, it is how it lacks more thorough consideration along these lines: that is, it doesn’t consider to my satisfaction a broader philosophy of the subject.

***

Admittedly, I have only offered a brief caricature of Bronner’s otherwise stunning book. Within this caricature I have touched on just a few important points. On the basis of these reflections, my one criticism is that there are too few indications of the dialectic between structure and agency in Bronner’s account of the bigot and the genealogy of the bigot’s prejudiced subjectivity. In a society where domination and violence is increasingly openly tolerated – in a society which fosters a hardened, repressed subject as opposed to an open, free-flourishing and sensitive subject[18] – one has to ask the question of the structural and systemic construction of that society in relation to such social phenomena as bigotry. In doing so, one must also ask the question of the status of the modern subject – the question of the socialconstruction of the subject. Thus, while Bronner’s account is thorough in so many ways, it lacks when it comes to one of the most important questions: the social production of prejudiced subjectivity – the cognitive plane of the bigot – in relation to capitalism.

We read, for instance, that “the bigot lags behind the rapid changes generated by capitalism and so is condemned to resist new forms of social and political life” (p. 21). We read also that the bigot is “uncertain of what to make of capitalism”, as s/he is an opportunist at heart, and likes it only when his/her interests are being served, when his/her superiority is maintained, when the Other is exploited (p. 17). In other words, we come to understand that the bigot dislikes it when s/he feels disadvantage, when s/he no longer feels on top (p. 17). Bronner thus gives us a sense of the bigot’s complex relation with capitalism and hierarchy: that the bigot is “caught between fear of the capitalist and contempt for workers, admiration for competition and principled dislike of socialism,” thus s/he “vacillates” (p. 17). But for all that, Bronner doesn’t provide enough of a satisfactory explanation of the role of capitalism and the coercive legacy capitalist institutions might have played in the development of the bigot. It’s not that I think Bronner is unaware of the importance of this question, it just seems to slip his focus. To his credit, an awareness of colonialism is present, as one would expect. And there is no question that the relationship between the bigot and modernity is well examined. “Modernity relies on growth”, reflects Bronner, and what was “once taken on faith is now subject to criticism”, which is undoubtedly a source of real conflict for the bigot. In this complex relation, the bigot will at times employ “the same scientific methods as his critics”, using reason and science to “support his prejudices” (p. 15). In other words, the bigot will adapt to modernity to serve his/her own prejudiced ends. But, as the book unfolds and as one nears toward its conclusion, it becomes apparent that there is a missing emphasis on a clear and explicit anti-capitalist politics in relation to understanding the bigot’s cognition and how we may combat it.

To word it differently: My fear is that insofar that Bronner brings capitalism into question in the closing pages of his book, especially with regards to the issue of class exploitation, which we learn is “impossible” to resist “without remembering the power of traditional bigotry and recognizing the need for solidarity among a wide range of subaltern groups” (p. 191), his notion of the “class ideal” seems to fall flat without explicit attention to the fact that anti-oppression movements must necessarily be anti-capitalist in nature. The bigot’s complex and generally antagonistic relation with modernity is one thing. But the bigot’s prejudice in relation to the formation of capitalist institutions and structures and subjectivities is another.

Relatedly, there is a part of me that wishes Bronner developed further a detailed understanding of the bigot’s psychology, particularly in relation to the bigot’s general affinity for hierarchy; for the allure of charismatic and dominant leaders; and often for hollow forms of ideological collectivity. These points, which could have and should have been explored in more detail, remind me of Ernest Becker’s 1973 study The Denial of Death. My general line of complaint also brings to mind Adorno’s analysis. Consider, for example, Adorno’s critique of Freud’s concept of the unconscious in “Sociology and Psychology”[19], where he rightly argues that the psyche must be dragged back into the social dialectic, which happens to also be “the position Marcuse takes in Eros and Civilisation”.[20] Considering Adorno’s thesis here, one of the issues we face today, as David Sherman reflects, is how: “If the ego fails to differentiate itself by virtue of the fact that it has been colonized by the institutional structures of society (bourgeois or fascist), it not only effectively cancels itself out as an agent, but, in the process, it also immediately transmits to the unconscious those social aims that would otherwise be subject to the critical capacities of a well-functioning, mediating ego – aims that actually contradict the goals of the primary libido. In other words, if the primary libido is what Adorno intends by the “nature of the subject”, which ideally serves as a reminder of the nondominating possibilities of genuinely enlightened thought (DOE, p. 40), the transposition of societal aims directly into the unconscious (due to a colonized ego structure’s inability to filter out the irrational) would effectively negate the possibility of the “remembrance” [of nature] that would permit the libido to serve as this source of resistance. And, indeed, this is precisely the aim of fascist propaganda.”[21]

It would seem to me, in other words, that a broader theory of the colonization of the ego and subject (de)formation would have benefited Bronner’s overall thesis. It would have grounded it even more in history and in a complex, many-sided critical theory of society. Furthermore, in critique of Freud’s Oedipal Complex, what Adorno is rightly challenging is how: “the internalisation of external authority [is] the deeply problematic outcome of the dialectic of enlightenment”[22]– that is, of the manifesting tendencies of coercive society to maintain control, and, indeed domination through top-down application inasmuch as also through the subject, which certainly strikes a similar chord to what Bronner wants to reveal in the prejudiced subjectivity of the bigot. Moreover, in a passage also quoted by Sherman, Adorno brilliantly describes how:

 The social power-structure hardly needs the mediating agencies of ego and individuality any longer. An out-ward sign of this is, precisely, the spread of so-called ego psychology, whereas in reality the individual psychological dynamic is replaced by the partly conscious and partly regressive adjustment of the individual to society …/ A brutal, total, standardising society arrests all differentiation, and to this end it exploits the primitive core of the unconscious. Both conspire to annihilate the mediating ego; the triumphant archaic impulses, the victory of id over ego, harmonise with triumph of the society over the individual”.[23]

In sum, I think Bronner could have done with developing more of a complex argument regarding the dominant, coercive and authoritarian nature of modern capitalist society and how domination is particularly produced and reproduced in the bigot. A clear and direct line would then have also been opened for him to relate his study of prejudiced subjectivity to the deeply troubling formation of the neoliberal subject. A framework for the beginning of such an argument is already well-established in the earliest generation of the Frankfurt School. At times, I think there is a tendency in later generations of Frankfurt School thinkers – of which Bronner is certainly a part – to move too far away from critical theory in this regard, and often to the detriment of whatever study in question.

Closing reflections: A radical politics

In closing, Bronner offers several suggestions in how we might combat the all-pervasive presence of the bigot moving forward. Around these suggestions he introduces, as I have already alluded, the notion of the “class ideal”, the purpose of which is to create solidarity among diverse movements and identity groups (pp. 193-194). Although I don’t entirely agree with the general sentiment that “social movements structured around identity rather unions are now probably the primary sites from which class issues can be generated”, I do agree with the general horizon Bronner seems to want to work toward: a radical, revolutionary solidarity in class struggle. Ultimately, I think there are more effective ways to approach the notion of the “class ideal” or the creation of symbolic solidarity. In any case, Bronner is spot-on when he reflects that:

“Any new approach will need to navigate and integrate three previously distinct facets of the struggle to marginalize the bigot: cultural practices that foster a cosmopolitan sensibility; political action that provides recognition for the disenfranchised and the outsider; and economic programs that privilege the class interests of the working people” (p. 194).

Moreover, the abolishment of prejudice, Bronner states, “should inform all struggles against class exploitation” (p. 194). To that, one might suggest taking Bronner’s analysis to its radical political conclusion: the need for an inclusive, participatory, mutually recognitive politics, which may potentially establish far-reaching solidarity between a diversity of movements in struggle against hierarchy, oppression, and exploitation – or domination writ large. Such struggle, in the end, is the struggle for emancipated society.

In building off Bronner’s argument, I suggest that to successfully combat the bigot, anti-capitalist and anti-racist movements must come to realize the universality of struggle, and shift the debate from a politics of fear to a politics of hope and openness and inclusion. We must establish a counter-narrative that signals the pursuit of an emancipatory politics. This would include an open, inclusive, tolerant politics within the field of participatory public engagement – one not principled on fear, but on compassion and empathy, on mutual recognition, and on a view of freedom that exists in and through relations with others, the exact opposite of a politics of alienation and coercion and one-way circuits of power. Modern coercive society, the system of capital, has created many walls and barriers between people; the task should be to dismantle them, not reinforce them. Thus, in refusing the bigot’s claims, not only should we recognize the particular struggle of diverse identity groups, but we ought to cultivate a politics which, prefiguratively speaking, overcomes the hierarchy and exclusionary ideology of prejudiced subjectivity now rampant in modern society.

Of course it is not so simple to organize such a politics, but it is our challenge. And ascontemporary social movements have shown us, it is not impossible. In combating the bigot, the struggle is not just class struggle: i.e., the struggle for a social-political, economic system that cares for all people irrespective of their race, gender, or sexual preference – a system that doesn’t foster economic and social conditions that create desperation, inequality, hardness, economically-centred xenophobic and racist outbreaks, authoritarian psychologies and pedagogies, global exploitation and ultimately the most ruthless oppression. It is also ultimately the struggle for emancipation and justice insofar as it is the struggle for collective social healing, after centuries of adapting to and developing within an ultimately coercive and dominant social reality. In this struggle however, one thing remains clear: the bigot is one of the biggest threats to revolutionary participatory grassroots movements: “remaining steadfast in resisting the prospects for a world in which all individuals insist on respect, equality, and social justice, knowing more, learning more, enjoying diversity”, the bigot “knows his enemy”, as “It is the same enemy the bigot has always had, namely, the idea that things can be different” (p.195).

References

[1] Penny, L. 2015. Europe shouldn’t worry about migrants. It should worry about creeping fascism. NewStatesman. Retrieved from www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/08/europe-shouldn-t-worry-about-migrants-it-should-worry-about-creeping-fascism

[2] Giroux, H. 2015. Trumping America. Truthout. Retrieved from www.truth-out.org/news/item/31788-trumping-america

[3] Fuchs, C. 2013. How Ideology is Policing the Crisis of European Capitalism (On the rise of far-right, dominant ideologies in Europe). Norwich: Heathwood Press. Retrieved from www.heathwoodpress.com/how-ideology-is-policing-the-crisis-of-european-capitalism/; Smith, R.C. Insecure Britain: On the Anti-Immigrant Narrative, the Rise of UKIP and the Unquestionableness of Capitalism. Norwich: Heathwood Press. Retrieved from www.heathwoodpress.com/insecure-britain-anti-immigrant-narrative-rise-ukip-unquestionableness-capitalism/

[4] Davis, A. 2013. Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Closures and Continuities. Retrieved frombackdoorbroadcasting.net/2013/10/angela-davis-freedom-is-a-constant-struggle-closures-and-continuities/; Sperber, E. 2014. Property, Racism and Police Violence: Why Recent Injustice in the US is Systemic. Heathwood Press. Retrieved fromwww.heathwoodpress.com/property-racism-police_brutality-why-recent-injustice-in-the-us-is-systemic/; Osterweil, W. 2014. In Defense of Looting. The New Enquiry. Retrieved fromthenewinquiry.com/essays/in-defense-of-looting/; Smith, R.C. 2015. An Institution of Oppression or for Public Well-Being and Civil Rights? Reflections on the Institution of Police and a Radical Alternative. Heathwood Press. Retrieved from www.heathwoodpress.com/an-institution-of-oppression-or-for-public-well-being-and-civil-rights-reflections-on-the-institution-of-police-and-a-radical-alternative-r-c-smith/

[5] Cato, M.S. Our treatment of today’s refugees harks back to Europe’s darkest hour. NewStatesman. Retrieved from www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2015/08/our-treatment-todays-refugees-harks-back-europes-darkest-hour

[6] Ibid.

[7] Giroux, H. 2015. Trumping America. Truthout. Retrieved from www.truth-out.org/news/item/31788-trumping-america

[8] Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., and Roberts, B. 1978. Policing the crisis. Mugging, the state and law and order. London: Macmillan.

[9] Nagarajan, C. 2013. How politicians and the media made us hate immigrants. openDemocracy. Retrieved from www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/chitra-nagarajan/how-politicians-and-media-made-us-hate-immigrants

[10] Fuchs, C. 2013. How Ideology is Policing the Crisis of European Capitalism (On the rise of far-right, dominant ideologies in Europe). Norwich: Heathwood Press. Retrieved from www.heathwoodpress.com/how-ideology-is-policing-the-crisis-of-european-capitalism/; Smith, R.C. Insecure Britain: On the Anti-Immigrant Narrative, the Rise of UKIP and the Unquestionableness of Capitalism. Norwich: Heathwood Press. Retrieved from www.heathwoodpress.com/insecure-britain-anti-immigrant-narrative-rise-ukip-unquestionableness-capitalism/

[11] Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., and Roberts, B. 1978. Policing the crisis. Mugging, the state and law and order. London: Macmillan.

[12] Smith, R.C. 2013. Consciousness and Revolt: An Exploration toward Reconciliation. Holt: Heathwood Press.

[13] Smith, R.C. 2013. The Ticklish Subject? A critique of Zizek’s Lacanian theory of subjectivity, with emphasis on an alternative. Holt: Heathwood Press.

[14] Mascarenhas, M. 2014. Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege, and Environmental Racism in Canada. Lanham: Lexington Books; Lissovoy, N. 2013. Conceptualizing the Carceral Turn: Neoliberalism, Racism, and Violation. In Critical Sociology, vol. 39, no. 5 739-755; Davis, A. 2012. The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues. San Francisco: City Lights Publishers.

[15] Smith, R.C. 2013. Consciousness and Revolt: An Exploration toward Reconciliation. Holt: Heathwood Press.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Smith, R.C. 2013. Consciousness and Revolt: An Exploration toward Reconciliation. Holt: Heathwood Press.

[18] Sherman, D. Sartre and Adorno: The Dialectics of Subjectivity (New York: SUNY Press, 2007)

[19] Adorno, T.W. 1968. “Sociology and Psychology”. In New Left Review 47, P.81

[20] Sherman, D. 2007. Sartre and Adorno: The Dialectics of Subjectivity. New York: SUNY Press, p. 225

[21] Sherman, D. 2007. Sartre and Adorno: The Dialectics of Subjectivity. New York: SUNY Press, p. 226

[22]

[23] Adorno, T.W. “Sociology and Psychology” (New Left Review 47, 1968), P.95

Source: The All-Pervasive Presence of the Bigot – Understanding the Persistence of Prejudice and How to Combat It | Heathwood Press

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