Sunday, 21 October 2012

What is the Right of Discriminate?


Mark Featherstone

On Friday morning Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, was interviewed on Radio 5 about his twitter posts concerning a court ruling against a landlord who refused to rent a room to a gay couple. Speaking on Nicky Campbell’s Breakfast Show, Griffin explained that British people have a ‘right to discriminate’. But what is this ‘right to discriminate’? Does it exist? Should it exist? Let’s think this through.

Essentially, Griffin sought to oppose the idea of a right to discriminate to the traditional British idea of tolerance. Here, we tolerate or accept other people, even though we may not agree with them, and it is this that makes society possible. This is the case because it is only on the basis of my acceptance of or respect for other people’s difference that I can ensure other people’s acceptance of or respect for my identity. Here, we find the basic principle of a liberal, democratic, pluralistic society, or we might say, a multicultural society, where I affirm other people’s right to their own identity. By contrast, if I refuse to tolerate or accept other people, it is likely that they will refuse to tolerate or accept me, and society will essentially become impossible. This would be the logical result of a society with a universal right to discriminate - enmity

What if, however, the right to discriminate was not universal, or democratic, and only some people held this power? This would change things. In other words, if we say that my right to discriminate against other people trumps their right to discriminate against me and that I somehow hold the essential power to discriminate then society could continue because I would essentially be setting or defining the rules of discrimination. Here, I have the power to decide. Here, I am dictator.

The political theorist who presents this argument, and best embodies Griffin’s logic, is Carl Schmitt, the German legal thinker, and member of the Nazi party until 1936, when he was ousted for his apparent careerism. In Schmitt’s work, the essence of politics resides in the ability to decide, and discriminate, between insiders and outsiders. Of course, Schmitt, the follower of the British thinker Thomas Hobbes, knew that not everybody could hold this power. If everybody could discriminate, and decide between their own insiders and outsiders, and essentially make their own law, then society would effectively disintegrate, and we would descend into civil war. Like Hobbes, who advanced the importance of the figure of the Leviathan, Schmitt argued that what was required to effectively organise society was a dictator. Somebody would have to make decisions, to decide between insiders and outsiders, and discriminate between friends and enemies.

While Schmitt made this decision, the supported Hitler and the Nazis against the background of post-crash Weimar Germany, Griffin champions authoritarianism and the right to discriminate in the context of early 21st century democracy which seems similarly bankrupt and exhausted in the wake of economic collapse. This is why we should be concerned about Griffin’s ideas today. He is voicing them under conditions where they are likely to find a receptive audience. In other words, people listen to the politics of enmity in difficult times.

Yet even if we were to accept these ideas morally, they seem totally unrealistic because without dictatorship they would lead us towards a kind of non-society of enemies. In this warfare society, I refuse to tolerate, accept, and recognise you, and you do the same to me. We end up at each other’s throats. This is civil war, which neither Hobbes nor Schmitt could tolerate or accept. Clearly, then, the only way the right to discriminate could really work, even if this is what we desired, is in an authoritarian society. But how likely is this today?

Unfortunately, it is more likely than ever since the 1930s, because of the economic crash, recession, and current austerity measures. If we need evidence of this, we only need to look to contemporary Greece, where the extreme rightists, Golden Dawn, have gained mass support in the wake of the collapse of Greek society. This is why we should be on guard against the extreme right today because they stand poised to take advantage of social decay, collapse, and resentment caused by austerity.

Of course, the truth is that even if we went down this immoral, violent, road the rightist principle of enmity would solve nothing because capitalism and economy remains the key expression of discrimination today. In our society the principal form of discrimination is not some stupid, poorly articulated, hatred of people on the basis of their personal attributes, although we must, of course, guard against this, but rather the capitalist logic that separates, and sorts, us into winners and losers as a result of our accidental position in the economy.

It is this violent calculus which has excluded the old white working class come underclass who make up the core of Griffin’s support from normal society, as well as everybody else who finds themselves living in the merciless precarious world of contemporary capitalism. Against this decaying system, which has led the resurgence of the extreme right across Europe, I would suggest that what is required today is a turn to the left, and a left which can solve the problems of the market, rather than a toothless left which refuses to manage the economy or a new rightist politics of discrimination. Against the society of enemies, I suggest we need a society without the principle of discrimination, where nobody has the right to discriminate or exclude anybody else on the basis of the peculiarities of their identity or accident of birth. 

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