Governing through responsibilization: managing unwanted migrants in the Netherlands

1. Introduction

Together with the normalization of the idea that migration is irregular and that it should be managed and restricted (Jansen et al. 2015: xi), the conveying of information on migration across the Mediterranean in terms of emergency, disaster, flows and numbers has become standard. Particularly in the European spring, the image of ‘swelling masses of desperate Africans fleeing poverty and war at home are trying to enter Europe illegally’ (IOM 2008: 11) is drawn upon. In April of this year for example, President of the European Council Donald Tusk warned the Members of the European Parliament that, concerning ‘the Central Mediterranean route … the numbers of would-be migrants in Libya are alarming’ (European Council 2016). The UNHCR estimates that in Libya ‘at least 100,000 migrants’ are ‘packed into towns and cities along its western coast’ (Stephen 2016) waiting for the weather to clear and to cross the sea to Europe. Military advisor for UN Libya envoy Martin Kobler claims this number to be ‘a million of potential migrants’ (DW 2016).

Similarly, in May 2014 Secretary of State Fred Teeven – a Dutch politician of the liberal VVD party who until March 2015 retained the portfolio Safety and Justice – evoked a dramatized image of migration across the Mediterranean. In the television show Eén op Eén, in which he was interviewed by journalist and talk show host Sven Kockelmann, the Secretary of State deliberately ‘rang the alarm bell’ (Eén op Eén 2014). Supposedly ‘thousands of migrants’ were to enter the Netherlands every month in 2014, ‘leading up to 65,000 people yearly’ (idem). Apart from the ‘alarming figures,’ the Secretary of State spoke of his fear of ‘organized human trafficking,’ particularly of Eritreans, although ‘it might very well be that there are people from Ethiopia amongst them’ (idem). As a solution, the Secretary of State made an appeal to ‘people working in logistics, people working in trains, in public transport, or international transportation’ to ‘open their eyes and ears’ to ‘any suspicious behaviour’ and ‘inform the police and military police’ (idem). What was to be noted for example is ‘how people are dressed’ and ‘their looks’ (idem). When the interviewer summarized Teeven’s position by rhetorically asking ‘So you are summoning all Dutch people on the road to keep their eyes open to anything that may point to human trafficking or to asylum-seekers from Africa?’ – thus suggesting that all citizens (and not only specific professions) were required to attend to visual aspects of those people now tainted with suspicion  –  the Secretary of State did not correct him (idem). In a Parliamentary Debate the following day, the Secretary of State furthermore foregrounded ‘a certain modus operandi concerning the behaviour of aliens, the way in which they are transported, or the way that is being communicated during the transportation’ (House of Representatives 2014a) as relevant factors to keep an eye on. ‘Information from society can improve visibility’ (House of Representatives 2014b), he later clarified in a letter to Parliament.

The call upon citizens to help the government in controlling unwanted migration is not an isolated anecdote. Individual citizens increasingly take part in mobility regulation, without being required to do so by their profession or affiliation. In the United States for example, citizens contribute to the surveillance and detection of migrants and to the enforcement of migration laws by calling anonymous tip lines, watching live streams of cameras monitoring border areas and reporting on suspicious behaviour, and joining border vigilantes or immigration posses (Walsh 2014). Although in Europe such citizens’ initiatives have received little scholarly attention, in several Member States it does happen that citizens are invited to report on migrants. In the UK, ‘if you think someone is living or working in the UK illegally, or is employing someone who isn’t allowed to work in the UK,’ such an ‘immigration crime’ can be reported through contacting the Home Office (Home Office 2015). In Hungary, in the summer of 2015, the mayor of the village of Asotthalom ordered village auxiliaries to trace and catch migrants and hand them over to the police (Toth 2015). In Sweden, the Migration Authority in 1999 launched the project Argus, an initiative that invited citizens to inform the Authority of ‘dubious immigrants’ – i.e. those ‘suspected of fraud (housing, employment, and social allowance), and/or assuming a false identity, giving fake asylum claims, and bogus family affiliations’ (Tesfahuney and Dahlstedt 2008).

Apart from appeals to individual citizens, Lahav and Guiraudon (2000; 2006) have signalled an international trend in which states seek to control migration by delegating authority to private and societal actors. Hospitals, schools, welfare officers, employers, and airline carriers are being included in these implementation processes (Lahav and Guiraudon 2000: 184-188) and thus provide input to policies that aim towards migration management (Lahav and Guiraudon 2006: 211).  

These outward delegations of responsibility for migration policies to citizens as well as to private and societal actors do not imply that governments fully transfer the responsibility to control migrant illegality to civil society. In the Dutch case, the government aims at preventing and managing ‘illegal’ migration, for example through pre-entry measures in ‘countries of origin’, border controls by the Border Management Renewal Program (‘Programma Vernieuwing Grensmanagement’, VGM), countering ‘illegal residency’ through controls by Mobile Security Monitoring (‘Mobiel Toezicht Veiligheid’, MTV), and facilitating return through programs by the Return and Departure Agency (Dienst Terugkeer en Vertrek’, DT&V). The observation here is rather that, in addition to these formal instruments, the Dutch government appeals to citizens and to private and societal actors in managing what they consider to be ‘illegal residency’ and ‘illegal migration’. ‘Government,’ then, refers not only to the state but rather to the set of practices and technologies of governing which operate across distinctions of state and non-state actors (Barry 2001: 175).

Using the qualification of ‘unwanted’ when referring to migrant ‘illegality’ over the course of this article – instead of ‘illegal’ or ‘irregular’ – emphasizes the constructed character of certain forms of migrant illegality as being problematic. Illegality is ‘a juridical status that entails a social relation to the state,’ as such being ‘a preeminently political identity’ (De Genova 2002: 422). The widely-used adjectives ‘illegal’ and ‘irregular’ would obscure this social, political and legal construction by suggesting the observation of a given social phenomenon (Düvell 2011: 276). Moreover, not all migrant ‘illegality’ or ‘irregularity’ is considered problematic in practice. For example, the American student working off the books in a London pub does not appear on the radar screens (Walters 2010: 85).

This article aims at analysing which forms of border-crossing and residency are considered problematic. Moreover, images of migrant ‘illegality’ as evoked as well as images promoting outwardly delegated forms of governing migration are put under scrutiny. Apart from problematizing the image of the unwanted migrant as called upon in mobilizing civil society, this article redescribes how ‘responsibilization’ of non-state actors redistributes power by using Foucault’s analysis of governmentality as a conceptual framework. Furthermore, the appeal made by former Secretary of State Teeven will be contextualized by Dutch migration policies aimed at countering migrant illegality since the 1990s as well the promotion of active citizenship since the 1970s; the assumption is that both developments shape the conditions surrounding the possibility of ‘responsibilization’ as a tactic of governance in the Netherlands. By doing so, the forms of thought, conduct and subjectivity that constitute responsibilization of non-state actors in the field of controlling unwanted migration will be evaluated.

2. Governmentality, biopolitics and biopower

Governmentality, characteristic of the final work of Foucault (1976 – 1984), is as much a historical notion referring to a particular regime of power functioning as constitutive for the modern state (Foucault 2007: 108), as well as a more general concept referring to the ‘strategic field of power relations in their mobility, transformability and reversibility’ (Foucault 2005: 252). Most relevant for the purposes of this article is the latter conceptualization: governmentality as a set of power instruments that is characterized by its fluidity and aimed at the population (Foucault 2007: 105). Power instruments, here, are not one-directional, top-down law-like instruments of government, but rather an assemblage of diverse tactics that aim to control the people as a whole. ‘Diverse’ here means that there is a number of different ways in which these ‘tactics’ operate (Foucault 2007: 99). As such, governmental power does not only operate through institutions, but also through procedures, analyses, reflections and calculations (Foucault 2007: 144). Governmentality thus ‘cuts out’ a very specific domain of power relations (Senellart 2007: 502), branching itself throughout the whole of civil society.

Key to the set of governmental power instruments is biopolitics, concerning the regulation of the population in terms of a species – i.e. the biological elements of population. Intertwined with the capillary character of power as it operates in governmentality, the power at work in biopolitics consists of a ‘multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate,’ meaning that power is not some sort of an externality, but rather an ‘infiltrated’ force that is interwoven with its very object – the population (Foucault 1990: 92). Thus, as power resides inside the system itself, it comes from ‘everywhere’ (Foucault 1990: 93): ‘power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of non-egalitarian and mobile relations. […] Power comes from below’ (Foucault 1990: 94). This definition of power makes clear that power is not only capillary (Walters 2012: 9) but also actively (re)produced by (non-state) actors. In Society must be defended, Foucault emphasises this point by stating that ‘Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise power. They are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays’ (Foucault 2003: 29). People are thus not only the object of power; they also practice it.

Although governmentality and biopolitics were only introduced in Foucault’s later work, it does not exclude the workings of disciplinary power – the latter being central to Foucault’s middle-period work (1970-1976). Disciplinary power refers to a broad a set of techniques of surveillance (i.e. what Foucault coins the microphysics of power), aimed at the normalization of individuals. Whereas biopolitical power targets the population, disciplinary power targets the individual body (Foucault 2003: 249). Surveillance objectifies individuals through (permanent and invisible) registration. The crux of disciplinary power, then, is that the person it is practiced on internalizes the discipline; as such, power automatically functions (Foucault 1973: 201). Disciplinary power is therefore individualizing: it encapsulates and isolates individuals. Indeed, disciplinary power and biopolitical power do not operate at the same level and are historically established at different times (Foucault 2003: 249), but ‘they are not mutually exclusive and can be articulated with each other’ (ibid.: 250). Th­­is is emphasized by Foucault’s introduction of the concept of biopower as a type of power that emerges at the intersection of the individualizing effects of disciplinary power and the massifying effects of biopolitical power (Rasmussen 211: 36-37).

As political power is ‘capillary,’ meaning that multiple agencies and techniques all relay and as such exercise force, the researcher’s focus should not be limited to the ‘immediate’ actions of the state. Instead, (s)he should trace how power branches and ‘sway[s] throughout society by means of a ramifying apparatus of control’ (Miller and Rose 2008: 26-27). Presupposing that the population belongs to a space of governance, the concept of governmentality is then an analytic lens that may reveal the ways in which political power is located outside of institutional politics.

3. Calling for citizens to report on ‘illegal’ migrants: the tactic of responsibilization

What makes the empirical starting point of this article particularly interesting is that citizens are deliberately requested to engage in the surveillance of ‘illegal’ migrants, and that private and societal actors are professionally required to implement policies that aim to restrict the ‘illegal’ entry and residence of migrants. In addition to the concept ‘governmentality’, which provides an ontology of governmental power and as such describes the distribution and effects of power in relations between state and non-state actors, the concept of ‘responsibilization’ (O’Malley and Palmer 1996; Rose 1999; Garland 2001; Schinkel and Van Houdt 2010; 2013) refers to explicit and administrative appeals to individuals, private sector and semi-public sector, to bear responsibility for public tasks (Schinkel and Van Houdt 2010: 699). However, both concepts are related: responsibilization is a tactic (Schinkel and Van Houdt 2013: 11) whose dynamic – concerning power distribution and effects – can be analysed with governmentality as an analytical framework.

According to Schinkel and Van Houdt, a leading concept that is drawn on in responsibilization as a tactic is citizenship (Schinkel and Van Houdt 2013: 11). Through invoking images of what is considered to be good citizenship, the governmental state influences the behaviour of its citizens, and positions them in such a way that they serve the ends of government. Thus, what is promoted is not citizenship as juridical status that defines membership of a territory, but rather a normative judgment concerning what citizenship should entail (Schinkel and Van Houdt 2010). Characteristic of images of good citizenship since the ’70s in neoliberal policies in Western Welfare states is the ‘ethical principle of active citizenship’ (Rose 2006: 159-160; Verhoeven and Tonkens 2013: 25). Through the ‛inculcation and shaping of ‛private’ responsibility,’ responsibilization assigns the community with a portion of the responsibility for resolving society’s needs for order, security, health and productivity (Rose 1999: 174). Importantly, this invoked image of the community is not a given; rather, it is itself produced by the mechanism of responsibilization. Responsibilization presupposes the distinction between those mature enough to enact active citizenship and those who fail to do so (Schinkel and Van Houdt 2013: 14). The figure of community then only represents the former group as it is imagined; a collective of self-entrepreneurs who attach themselves to the value of individual responsibility.

In the Netherlands, the move towards an ‛activating welfare state’ can be traced back in the political discourse from the ’70s onwards (Kampen et al. 2013: 11). Van Houdt (2014) demonstrates in his dissertation how, in Dutch safety politics, citizens are increasingly asked to get involved with policy implementation. The developments in this branch of politics are relevant to the current purposes, both administratively – because asylum and immigration policies in the Netherlands are dealt with by the Ministry of Safety and Justice – and theoretically – because of the increasing criminalization of migrants (e.g. Commissioner for Human Rights 2010) and the emerging migration-security complex (e.g. Bigo 2002; Ceyhan and Tsoukala 2002; Huysmans 2000; Walters 2008; Walters 2010). Starting his analysis with the 1985 report Society and Crime, Van Houdt shows how citizens are asked to contribute to ‘fighting the mass manifestation of crime’ (House of Representatives 1985), how cooperation between state and non-state actors is cultivated (House of Representatives 1990), how citizens’ participation and social controls are encouraged (Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations 2002) and how neighbourhoods and individual citizens are required to engage in ‛preventive partnerships’ (Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations 2007).

In the episode of Eén op Eén, Secretary of State Teeven in effect mobilizes society (Donzelot 1991) to ‘make visible the criminality linked with [‘illegal’ migration]’ (Eén op Eén 2014). Immediately reporting these signals to the police ‘really helps [the Ministry of Safety and Justice] forward’ (idem). From a governmentality perspective, then, this call for control, in which those working in logistics are being ‘responsibilized’, can be considered to be among the tactics that are used by the governmental state to try to manage ‘illegal’ migrants from the capillaries of society via an information flow from below. Through the request to report on ‘illegal’ migrants to the police, ‘a newly conceptualized contractual relationship between citizen and state’ is established in which the citizen ‘cooperates with the state’ (Schinkel and Van Houdt 2010: 699-700). Interestingly, in parliamentary debates that followed the television broadcast, it became clear that the Secretary of State had at the time of broadcast not yet informed the Members of Parliament of the supposedly new dynamics of ‘illegal’ migration or his intended reaction. The Secretary of State thus first informed civil society (by mobilizing them through the media); a day later, he informed Parliament. Clearly, thus informing society and appealing to it in terms of surveillance is considered valuable as a strategy – as the temporal order indicates. By installing citizens – particularly those working in logistics – as agents that actively serve the ends of government, the government creates a capillary structure throughout civil society that encompasses a multiplicity of spatially distant actors.

As it is still the state that initiates the ramification of power distribution and prescribes the desired actions to be taken in line with policy goals, the citizens’ actions do not compromise the sovereignty of the state. As Mezzadra and Neilson note, although sovereignty is subjected to the rationality of governmentality, it is transcendent to its devices because it retains its autonomy (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013: 203-204). At the same time citizens may or may not be willing to engage in activities of surveillance and detection, or instead they may carry the activity of surveillance beyond its intended scope. How citizens act in practice when they encounter ‘illegal’ migrants is not a given, as they may cushion or counteract the government’s interests. The state, however, remains central in the establishment of its capillary power structure. To Ong (2006) sovereign power ‘depends on a network of regulatory entities that channel, correct, and scale human activities in order to produce effects of social order’ (Ong 2006: 100). In this sense, the appeal to citizens to get involved with the implementation of migration policies disaggregates and decentralizes state power, but at the same time reconfigures it (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013: 192).

4. The context of responsibilization in migrant management in the Netherlands: the Linking Act and the Foreigner Administration System

The presentation of ‘illegal immigration’ as a highly disturbing fact of such severance that citizens are being alerted on national television fits with De Genova’s observation that  “migrant ‘illegality’ has risen to unprecedented prominence as a ‘problem’ in policy debates and as an object of border policing strategies for states around the world” (De Genova 2002: 419). In northern European states, Broeders and Engbersen observe an ‘avalanche’ of policy measures aimed at controlling and countering the presence of ‘irregular migrants’ (Broeders and Engbersen 2007: 1592). The presuppositions of such a magnitude of policies seems to be that unwanted migration is in fact governable through migration policies and that the ‘turbulence’ of ‘unwanted migration’ can be ‘managed’ (Bojadžijev and Karakayalı 2010; Mezzadra and Neilson 2013, 179). Similarly, the call made by the Secretary of State is not an isolated episode concerning the delegation of control to civil-society actors. In the Netherlands, part of the discouragement policy launched at the beginning of the 1990s aimed at curbing illegal residence and combatting illegal employment (Van der Leun and Kloosterman 2006: 67), was to move the implementation of migration policies to Human Service Organisations (Hasenfeld 1983) such as providers of social benefits, health care, housing and education – all of which can be crucial for illegal migrants (Van der Leun 2006: 315). The appeal made to citizens in the Eén op Eén episode could then be understood in this broader context of outward delegation in the policy area of migration.  

In 1991, social-fiscal numbers were tied to residence status (Van der Leun 2006: 313), meaning that employers could no longer accept ‘irregular’ migrants to legally work (Düvell 2011, 289). In 1995, the digital database VAS, meaning ‘Foreigner Administration System’ (‘Vreemdelingen Administratie Systeem’), was launched. In this system, data on ‘all foreigners residing in the Netherlands’ was contained (Leerkes 2006: 26). Importantly, the database enabled welfare departments to verify whether their clients are lawful residents and as such eligible to their services (Van der Leun 2003: 18). Moreover, it enabled housing corporations to check whether their clients had a residence permit and hence entitled to rent their apartments (Leerkes 2006: 26). In 1998 the Linking Act (‘Koppelingswet’) was enacted which allowed immigration service registration files, census bureau data, tax data and social security data to be cross-checked (Leerkes 2006: 26). As a consequence, a whole range of Human Service Organisations got access to an infrastructure that was installed to make their provisions – such as social benefits, housing, health care and education – conditional on residential status (Van der Leun 2006: 312).

Van der Leun explicitly characterizes the Linking Act as a tactic of remote control (Zolberg 1999: 75), by which she refers to the manoeuvre in which ‘immigration policy moves to organizations that allocate social services’ (Van der Leun 2006: 315). As a side note, Leerkes observes that the Foreigner Administration System is illustrative of responsibilization, without however elaborating on this point and only referring to Garland (2001). The ways in which the Linking Act and the Foreigner Administration System as instances of responsibilization redistribute power and transform governance are not attended to. Importantly, by charging non-state actors such as house owners and those working in social welfare departments with the implementation of their policy goals, they are put in the position of executing the ends of government. As such, the state governs through community actors: throughout civil society the whole network of force-relaying entities is being put in place, that are themselves thus located in the very field in which they operate – i.e. the community as a whole. In the societal domain, ‘illegal’ migrants are thus being controlled from below through a network of Human Service Organisations in which power can come from everywhere. This multiplicity and diversity of power practitioners is exemplary for biopolitical power as it operates.

The practice of citizens’ actions in response to the appeal made by the Secretary of State does not yield a set outcome – for they may cushion or counteract the government’s interests – and the same holds for actors working in Human Service Organisations. Based on interviews with human service workers before and after the enactment of the Linking Act, Van der Leun concludes that ‘norms, values and ideologies of implementers with a high degree of discretion and professional autonomy sometimes result in outcomes that run counter to the official policy goals’ and that ‘interests of the national government and local authorities do not always coincide’ (Van der Leun 2006: 323). However, Van der Leun’s argument seems to primarily lean on instances of support (Van der Leun 2006: 331) that outreaches official injunctions – i.e. human service workers not living up to the government’s mandate to exclude ‘illegal immigrants’ from public services. Inversely, the discretionary room may similarly allow for actions that otherwise depart from the national policy goals, including for example exclusion that is uncalled-for – e.g. doctors refusing to offer ‘essential medical care’ albeit being professionally required to do so. In any case, when policy practice exceeds the government’s intentions, the national government may attempt to blame it on the respective non-state organization instead of being held accountable for failure, as their responsibility is delegated outwards.

5. Racially representing unwanted migrants: massification and individualization

Non-state actors are thus part of the capillary power network that relays governmental power, the object of power being the unwanted migrant. However, the unwanted migrant also becomes a subject by virtue of these power relations, for power, as Foucault shows, works constitutively (Foucault 2003: 30). What does the rhetorical figure of the migrant refer to, and to what extent does this rhetorical image overlap with migrants as human beings?

The Linking Act and the Foreigner Administration system problematize migrant illegality in the broad sense, i.e. ‘the presence in the Netherlands of foreign nationals who are not in possession of a valid residence permit and are therefore obliged to leave the country of unlawful stay’ (Düvell 2011: 284). Some migrants are considered ‘illegal’ because they crossed the border ‘illegally,’ whereas others arrived on tourist visas and overstayed or became ‘illegal’ when they were refused refugee status (Leerkes 2009: 16). However, on television, the Secretary of State evokes a very specific image of migrant ‘illegality’ by linking it with ‘organised human trafficking’ and representing migrant illegality with observable or audible characteristics of migrants –dress, looks, behaviour and speech which citizens are required to carefully attend to and report on.

This figure of migrant ‘illegality,’ brought up as pointers and clues concerning what citizens should administer to, reinforces a massification of unwanted migrants. The Eén op Eén episode can be interpreted in terms of creating ‘caesura within a population’ (Foucault 2003: 255). In this particular case, the caesura is based on visible and audible observables of a presupposed group, establishing a distinctive criterion of which people should be met with suspicion and which people should not. In any case, establishing unwanted migrants as a group assumes homogeneity, under-communicates diversity and does not allow for self-identifications other than that of political movement. The fragmenting power that subdivides groups, however, does not only abstract from migrants as human beings; it creates divides based on of the category of race (Foucault 2003: 254-263) which is presented as identifiable through physical characteristics of a supposed group.

Crucially, it is thus not migrant ‘illegality’ per se that is targeted: instead, the Secretary of State plays on a stereotypically racialized figure of migrant ‘illegality’, repeatedly played out on television, i.e. Africans ferried across the Mediterranean (Walters 2010: 85). Citizens are then asked to operationalize these racial assumptions. These characteristics are moreover formulated in a rather vague manner – ‘any suspicious behaviour’ suffices for calling the military police – and that seeing any group of dark-skinned people potentially justifies making a call. And as civil society actors themselves are required to look for people who meet these distinctive criteria – as opposed to ‘normal’ citizens, who pass the test as being not-suspicious – these actors produce and relay these racial assumptions throughout civil society, which has, through responsibilization, become the field from which governmental power is exercised. 

Apart from massifying migrant ‘illegality’ based on a reified image of a racialized group, by evoking a securitized image of human trafficking – i.e. a representation visible on political agendas that treats human trafficking as part of a security continuum (Aradau 2004: 252-253) – migrant ‘illegality’ becomes tainted with suspicion and lumped together with drug trafficking, terrorism, and organised crime (Aradau 2004: 252-253). Moreover, because it is the police and the military police – whose mission is the protection of internal security (Huysmans 2000: 756) – that citizens are required to report to, migrant illegally becomes similarly associated with the bulk of security issues and as such meets with risk management and crime control.

Intertwined with the racialized and securitized massification of the unwanted migrant, the rhetorical image appealed to is similarly individualizing. Although governmental power is not always disciplinary, disciplinary power and biopolitical power are ‘not mutually exclusive and can be articulated with each other’ (Foucault 2003: 250), allowing the governmentalized state to use disciplinary power as a ‘figure of political technology’ (Foucault 1973: 205).

It is through disciplinary power – a broad set of techniques of surveillance considered as a microphysics of power – that the body is constituted as something individual (Foucault 2003b: 30). The figure of the ‘illegal’ migrant in this sense emerges as a subject to be governed by virtue of juridical and political distinctions that, dependent on particular political ends (Fassin 2001), categorize some people as ‘illegal.’ By virtue of the Linking Act and the Foreigner Administration problematizing certain aspects of some migrants’ existence in relation to the state’s political interests, (s)he becomes a ‘matter of concern’ (Brown 2015: 15). This ‘body of knowledge’ about ‘illegal’ migrants – which these databases in fact are – ‘insidiously objectifies those on whom it is applied’ (Foucault 1973: 220). A substantive set of personal information about the ‘illegal’ migrant is made visible to multiple actors – i.e. every actor that can access the Foreigner Administration System, including several civil society actors.

As the Secretary of State then publicly represents unwanted migrants as bearers of visible and audible bodily characteristics, the individual body transforms into an object in which the alleged racial observables of migrant ‘illegality’ are inscribed. When responding to his call, citizens then reproduce the individualizing effect of power that sustains migrant illegality as an observable phenomenon. Notably, it is the immediate bodily activity and characteristics that people are required to attend to in recognizing and acting on ‘illegal’ migrants as targeted – i.e. to focus what can be seen and heard. The installed disciplinary power encapsulates the individual ‘illegal’ migrant in the face of surveillance. In a public space, the unwanted migrant does not know whether the person (s)he bumps into intends to issue a report. The unwanted migrant is visible for surveillance, in the face of the potential, invisible non-state actors relaying power. Based on bodily characteristics, (s)he might be considered suspicious.

At the intersection of the biopolitical massification targeting unwanted migrants as a racialized and securitized group, and the disciplinary individualization targeting the unwanted migrant as body, biopower emerges (Rasmussen 2001: 36-37), a notion of power Foucault particular discusses in the context of racism. For Foucault, racism is a basic mechanism of power as exercised by modern States – which can ‘scarcely function without becoming involved with racism at some point’ (Foucault 2003: 254) – that separates what must live, and what must die (Foucault 2003: 254). Whereas Rasmussen in his article starkly contrasts Foucault’s notion of racism with what he considers as ‘the common idea that racism, fundamentally, is a form of irrational prejudice, social discrimination, or political ideology’ (Rasmussen 2001: 35), this contrast seems to underexpose the fact that racism is not at all limited to state genealogies and discourses but rather to be observed in everyday governance. The racialized and securitized figure of the ‘illegal’ migrant, moreover, is not only sustained as a top-down representation. Rather, exactly because governmentality as an analytic framework may reveal that individual people are not only the objects of power but also its relays (Foucault 2003: 29), the tactic of responsibilization exploits this ontology of power. The figure of the ‘illegal’ migrant – which in the case in point does in fact seem to be constructed through prejudice, discrimination and ideology – is sustained by non-state actors. Clearly, the representation of unwanted migrants through an image of migrant ‘illegality’ that draws on race and security does not attend to any self-understanding of migrants other than their juridical and political status. This identity is ‘superimposed on daily life’ (De Genova 2002: 422), is what De Genova calls the ‘everyday production of ‘illegality’’ (De Genova 2002: 423) and is enacted from within the responsibilized community.

6. Disregarding migrant agency: the unwanted migrant represented as threat to active citizenship

Civil society actors thus reinforce the massification as well as individualization of unwanted migrants: both as part of the population that is isolated through listing a set of differentiating racial criteria in the face of ‘normal citizens’, and as reduced to a bodily inscribed political-juridical categorization. This image clearly omits the agency of migrants (Bojadžijev and Karakayalı 2010; Mezzadra 2010; 2015). Decisions to migrate, processes of migration itself and agency at the border are not attended to in the image of migrant ‘illegality’ as it stands, which confirms the tendency to neglect subjective stakes of contemporary migration experiences (Mezzadra 2015: 121).

Moreover, the unwanted migrant is likely to internalize the discipline and as such to inscribe the power relation (Foucault 1973, 202). Several authors have hypothesized on the causal relation between restrictive policies aimed at migrant ‘illegality’ and targeted migrants increasingly going into hiding. In her book, the Unknown City, a research project on ‘illegal’ migrants in the Netherlands in which she participated, Van der Leun notes that ‘it is a fact of life’ that ‘illegal’ migrants need to remain unseen by state officials and public organisations (Van der Leun 2003: 115). Moreover, she assumes that the stricter the enforcement regime, the more ‘illegal’ migrants will be pushed towards an underground existence (Van der Leun and Kloosterman 2006: 62). Engbersen and Broeders – the former author being involved in the same research project – also note that ‘illegal’ migrants are increasingly likely to go even deeper underground as a consequence of measures that exclude ‘illegal’ migrants from public services (Engbersen and Broeders 2007: 1606). Similarly, now that – in addition to those working in Human Service Organizations – citizens are invited to contribute to surveillance, this assumption probably grows in likeliness. As there are more ears and eyes implementing restrictive policies to hide from, the multiplicity of persons that may subject the unwanted migrant to the threat of being uncovered extends throughout the responsibilized community.

Taken together with increased forcing of unwanted migrants into underground existence and as such living away from the public, the omitting of migrant agency hinders identifications with ‘illegal’ migrants in terms of autonomous and ‘responsible’ agents. In the face of the ideal of citizenship that responsibilization draws on, and which applauds active self-entrepreneurs enacting individual responsibility, the abstraction from the autonomy of migrants may invigorate the divide between responsibilized citizens and unwanted migrants. As responsibilization rests on the differentiating criteria of agentive versus passive, the disregard shown to migrant agency inhibits a perception of them being agentive actors and as such allows the unwanted migrant to represent a threat to the ideal of the self-reliant and active responsibilized citizen. In their empirical comparative research on the ways in which active citizenship is promoted, Verhoeven and Tonkens (2013) found that in the Netherlands harbouring negative feelings of weariness towards those incapable of self-reliancy is being appealed to as proper. In other words, the qualification of being a ‛sponger’ is cultivated towards those considered incapable of meeting up to the requirement of being agentive (Grin 2013: 238). The promoted figure of the ‘illegal’ migrant, in which the autonomy of migrants is not engaged with, then seems a threat to the ideal of a ‘society of participation’ consisting of agentive actors capable of self-care.

7. Conclusions

The representation of ‘illegal’ employed by the Secretary of State draws on a securitized image of human trafficking and observable or audible characteristics such as dress, looks, behaviour and speech. It is thus not migrant ‘illegality’ per se, but a figure based on racial assumptions, placed into a security continuum. Consequently, this evoked image of the unwanted migrant is massified on racial grounds and is at the same time individualized by transforming the body into an object in which the alleged racial observables of migrant ‘illegality’ are inscribed. 

By inviting citizens to report on migrant ‘illegality’ through evoking this figure of unwanted migrants, the Dutch government places civil-society actors in a position where they serve the ends of the government and operationalize classifications of race and security. The appeal to citizens to contribute in surveillance is typically an act of responsibilization, which requires non-state actors to bear responsibility for public tasks by evoking a normative account of ‘active citizenship’.

In the wider context of migrant management in the Netherlands, control has similarly been delegated outwards. Notably through the implementation of the Foreigner Administration System and the Linking Act – that allow Human Service Organizations to check on and report irregular migrants – force is exercised throughout the responsibilized community. Governmentality as an analytic lens reveals that through responsibilization non-state actors become part of the capillary network from which governmental power is put into effect.

The representation of migrant ‘illegality’ undermines the subjectivity and agency of unwanted migrants. As the premise of ‘active citizenship’ that underlies responsibilization draws on a divide between those enacting agency and individual responsibility, disregarding the autonomy of migrants, articulations of their agentive experience are hindered. Given the apparent legitimacy of harbouring negative feelings towards those ­considered to fail the requirements of active citizenship, the ‘illegal’ migrant, whose autonomy is abstracted from, then seems incompatible with the image of a responsibilized community.

Subsequent research is needed to further grasp the practice of responsibilization in the governance of migrant ‘illegality’ in the Netherlands. Given that apparatuses of security are the essential mechanism of governmental management (Foucault 2007, 108), knowing how security strategies inform responsibilization tactics would contribute to an understanding of how these appeals to citizens are to be positioned in the face of what the role of the contemporary state is in relation to citizens. Moreover, qualitative ethnographical research on migrants’ subjective practices is needed to articulate the autonomy of migrants and to understand experiences of being governed from within the community sphere itself. 






Pillaged Books and Plundered Maps: Pirates and the Boundaries of Language

When the king asked him what he was thinking of, that he should molest the sea, he said with defiant independence: ‘The same as you when you molest the world! Since I do this with a little ship I am called a pirate. You do it with a great fleet and are called an emperor.’ (St. Augustine’s City of God (1963), cf. Baer (1982, 19–20)).

Societies sometime proceed through the punishment of small thefts, and the institutionalization of larger ones.[1] The same might be said of research. Pirates can be writers, and writers can be pirates. Academics teach students not to plagiarize, or steal others’ words, but citations themselves, and scholarly writing more broadly, can be viewed as a type of regulated robbery. Citations acknowledge another’s contribution, while giving the author permission to take and reuse it. Authors are also the subjects of piracy, since the term piracy also refers to the downloading of copyrighted documents, books, videos and music, either through peer-to-peer torrent software or directly from websites like, whose name references stereotyped piratical dialects.[2] Not coincidentally, in Europe earlier definitions of intellectual piracy were connected to mercantilist laws that excommunicated pirates from the national community (Temple 2000).[3]

Academic piracy isn’t limited to the internet. Entire fields have suffered from allegations of theft. Archaeology originated in conquest, as artefacts from around the world were forcibly unearthed or bought on the black market before being shipped to the urban centers of the world’s imperial powers. Underwater archaeology in particular has been singled out as a form of preservation that, some claim, is a veiled type of looting. Many of the maps used by pirates have disappeared, but maps of the wrecks of pirate ships are particularly valuable as a result of the ongoing obsession with the romantic myth of Caribbean piracy.[4]

In light of these entwined histories of piracy and authorship, this article analyzes the documentary histories of Caribbean pirates to argue for greater attention to the material boundaries of language. To understand the entanglements between texts and the world, I focus specifically on the boundaries between language and non-language–between objects that are considered linguistic and those that are not–in sources for the pirate Benito de Soto and related examples. Accounts of Caribbean pirates are very widely read, and a wealth of sources is available for the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Pirates have been hugely influential on a popular level, and the theft of documents is a recurring theme in many of the relevant texts. The study of such thefts provides insights into the materialities of writing and research, while drawing attention to how definitions of theft, and related notions of value, can change depending on their contexts.

As the historical reporting of the destruction of texts, pirate textualities provide an interesting case for the application and further expansion of sociolinguistic theory, which has explored the varied ways that language is used in specific instances and communities (Schieffelin, Woolard, and Kroskrity 1998). In recent years, linguistic anthropologists, drawing on the work of Michael Silverstein, have elaborated on the concepts of metapragmatic discourse (discourse about the practical role and purpose of language) and the related linguistic ideologies (broader ideologies about the practical role and function of language) that such discourse both draws upon and reveals (Lee 1997; Lucy 1993; Silverstein 2004; 1993; 1976; Silverstein and Urban 1996). The literature thereby builds upon J.L. Austin’s (2000) work on linguistic acts, in which he studies the ways that saying something may constitute an act, as in the ‘I pronounce you guilty,’ of a courtroom trial. As such, they have suggested a set of frameworks for analyzing the complex relationships between a diverse range of semiotic phenomena and their broader social and material contexts. These include the related study of indexicality, or the ways that statements such as, ‘Look over there!’ can be said to point to or index a relationship with its context, including the material world (Duranti and Goodwin 1992; Schieffelin, Woolard, and Kroskrity 1998).[5] However, in order to reap the full benefits of metapragmatic theory, it is necessary to also understand its scope and the limits of this notion of the Meta, and this is precisely one goal of this article.[6]

Concerns about textuality have shaped the disciplines of both linguistics and social history from early on, and this has been further developed in the Subaltern Studies literature (e.g. Chatterjee 2002; Chaturvedi 2000; Pandey 2000). But often the emphasis has been on how little the existing historical sources focus upon the majority of people in the world, such as oppressed groups, even in cases where they are named or otherwise indicated in a particular text (Spivak 1984; 1988). This also holds true for work in pirate studies as social history, which in many cases has striven to overcome the absence of direct accounts of pirates’ and sailors’ lives through a detailed exploration of those resources that do exist in light of a deep knowledge of the broader contexts in which the sources were produced (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000; Rediker 2004; 1989). However, both social history and subaltern studies have concentrated upon strategies for dealing with reading official sources against the grain, in cases where there is an absence of direct sources, such as with documents detailing sailors’ daily lives. They focus less on subject areas, such as Caribbean pirates, where an overwhelming abundance of popular sources exist, but whose main characters remain marginalized.[7]

Certainly, the wealth of sources available for Caribbean pirates demonstrates that they have loomed large in past public imaginations as well as present ones. Yet this also means that the content of the sources diverges widely from the varied and complex factual accounts preferred by many historians. Instead, the primary sources that deal with such pirates during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tend to revolve around a few distinct, if loosely organized, genres, including legal documents and popular tracts, both of which include the testimony of pirates as well as victims, combined with folklore, travel journals and nautical charts, and reporting of pirates’ speeches in public–generally directly before they were executed. Thus, although there are a proliferation of available pirate biographies, as well as indexes of pirate biographies, and even indexes of indexes,[8] the abundance of sources is evidence of the simultaneous aversion from, and admiration of, Atlantic pirates that have shaped studies of them from the beginning.[9] And such historical fascination, as well as piracy’s status as a crime, means that documents played as important a role in the original conduct and definition of Atlantic piracy as they do in determining its legacy.

Since many of the texts were written for popular consumption by people in Europe and the European colonies of the time, it is to be expected that the authors seek to justify their accounts both as texts and as more than simple lurid accounts. Indeed, authors were concerned to show that pirates were worthy of the written word, and to demonstrate that their own writings were more authoritative than simple gossip. So overall the sources themselves tend to argue for the primacy of the written word both in legal and academic terms. What is surprising, then, is the very ambiguity of many accounts of these pirates’ relationship to texts in many documents. In the documents pirates are sometimes presented as the antithesis of society, and its textual bent, in their wanton destruction of official papers. Yet this is not the only depiction of pirates, who are also shown treasuring those same papers and the material value they represent. What emerges, both within and between different accounts and different pirates, are practices where texts are not necessarily anything special, where language is not necessarily separated from other spheres of activity.

Therefore, it is not the wholesale otherness or incommensurability (Kuhn 1996; Povinelli 2001) of the actions described that is of crucial theoretical interest here, but rather the very ambivalence about texts and textuality. Similarly, I do not aim to tease out an overarching empirical history of piracy from the documents that name and define them. Instead, I focus upon the role of the documents in select, emblematic cases from the historical accounts of Caribbean piracy–usually in the course of being destroyed, forgotten, misused or otherwise left in states of disarray.[10] I chose the accounts of de Soto because they display the full range of treatment of documents from the sources for Caribbean piracy more broadly, and I supplement his account with accounts of the more famous pirates who came before and after him. The documents for piracy are of crucial interest to a better understanding of the equally complex boundaries of textuality in contemporary theory. Although pirates’ motives are often unintelligible from the sources, those sources are not reducible to the prejudices of their authors. Something more is going on, and this paper attempts to delineate its specifics.

Indeed, this ‘something more’ both exemplifies and reveals the challenge of attributing pirate accounts to, alternately, a fabricated or exaggerated story or the actions of a pirate ‘out there’, allegedly beyond the text. Instead, I show how, due to the materiality of language and documents, the story and the empirical history are each implicated in the other in ways that do not allow for them to be extricated from each other. The quote that opens this article comes from a much older era of piracy and literacy in the Mediterranean. It can be seen as an inversion upon the legitimation of power through redefinition. It serves equally well as a commentary upon the ways that, as we will see, differing conceptions of language might serve as the medium for using the ‘same’ texts and discourses in radically different ways, even to the point of outlining the limits of textuality itself.

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000; See also Rediker 2004; 1989) have argued that historical piracy developed in part as a response to the underpaid labor of slaves, sailors, and others, all of whom helped to build maritime empires that were made rich in no small part through conquest and predation. This provides an interesting perspective upon the ways that scholarly critique, as the incorporation and re-use of documents, has been formed in an ongoing, if generally unacknowledged, relation to piracy. For allegations of ‘theft’, through the use of pirated versions of scholarly texts, are cast in a different light depending upon the scale of the theft in question—for example, whether the unpaid and underpaid labor that sustains academic inquiry is included in the definition of theft. In addition, it’s not unheard of to assign the name of ‘theft’ to the kind of re-reading of archival sources that I will conduct throughout this article, the searching against the grain–a quest that is purposefully off-kilter. I do so in order to analyze some of the ways that texts and textuality are privileged in scholarly thought, and how this affects the form and content of research. For as definitions of theft vary, they do so in intimate relation to conceptions of language, including ideas about what language is, what it does, and what is done to it, in the world.

Adios, Todos! The Death of de Soto

According to one account, Benito de Soto appeared penitent at his execution: ‘On his arrival at the fatal spot…on the verge of the bay, he spent a quarter of an hour in fervent prayer, the rain falling heavily all the time’ (London 1830, 35). The narrator, A. B. London, who claims to have been an eyewitness to the event, declares that de Soto held a crucifix until a few moments before his death, and that he kissed it regularly and remorsefully ‘with apparent devotion’ (1830, 35). However, in Philip Gosse’s The Pirate’s Who’s Who, one of the most widely-read indexes of pirate biographies, Gosse tells us that de Soto ‘died bravely’, defiantly and without remorse (1968, 284). Moreover, Gosse makes no mention of religion. The two authors agree that de Soto stepped up on his own coffin, placed the noose around his neck, then jumped off, deliberately hanging himself. But London asserts that de Soto did this in order to ‘assist the executioner in performing his awful duty’ and that he ‘passed into eternity without the slightest struggle!’ (1830, 35). In contrast, Gosse suggests that de Soto wished to take his own life in one final act of defiance (1968, 284). London notes that de Soto’s last speech in Gibraltar was one of caution, in which he ‘harangued the surrounding populace in Spanish, acknowledging the justice of his sentence, and exhorting them to take warning by his death and to pray for him’ (1830, 35). Gosse, on the other hand, writing one hundred years later, claims that de Soto’s final statement, this time in Cadiz, consisted of nothing more than a resounding, ‘Adios, todos!’ (Goodbye, everyone!) (1968, 284).

De Soto certainly was a notorious pirate by the time of his death at age twenty-six.[11] His was not a romantic sort of fame either, but one of excessive, if fallible, cruelty. I single him out because the conflicting stories told of de Soto’s final speech illustrate quite vividly the potential that pirate studies holds for the understanding of the material role of text and language in both scholarly and everyday life. This potential is particularly notable in terms of the implications of using text, strictly defined, to relate semiotic activity that was originally neither written nor even strictly linguistic.[12] For example: after the hanging the authorities reportedly made sure that de Soto’s sentence–which, like those of seven of his companions, included dragging and quartering–was properly carried out. They drove a stake into the beach, and impaled his head on it (London 1830, 29–30).

 The accounts of de Soto’s execution reveal the indeterminacy that arises when trying to discern to what extent his death could be read as a symbolic act, an attempt to ‘speak’ through his actions. Furthermore, even if his death were symbolic, then it is entirely unclear who, if anyone, was speaking: de Soto, the chronicler who wrote the story down, or both? Due to these complexities, the extant documents for de Soto’s acts of piracy allow for a better understanding of the relationship of reported speech and practices of documentation, and thus of the boundaries of language. Any attempt to determine to what extent a document might reveal an instance of speech is intimately tied up with the varied boundaries and conceptions of text and language themselves, of acts that are considered linguistic and those that are not.

Many of the archival sources that demonstrate pirates’ disdain for documents were intended to provoke feelings of horror in the reading public, but I seek to show that they are not reducible to the prejudices of the scribe. Pirates do potentially reveal themselves through the sources, if only ambiguously, by troubling the expected accounts, by alternately subverting and reinforcing dominant notions of language and textuality. In the ensuing sections, I analyze two ways that these select sources depict pirates treating texts. First, pirates are presented as showing disdain for documents, both by destroying documents, in the sense of shredding or defacing them, or by forgoing the need for documents completely, as with required permits such as the Letters of Marque that gave permission for the plundering of enemy ships. Second, pirates are recorded as ignoring the linguistic aspects of documents, or at least showing only cursory regard to documents’ linguistic content. They did so even when preserving documents, either manipulating them without destroying them–concealing and secreting them away, changing their shape somehow–or by manipulating others in order to change the contents of future texts–often in order to avoid incriminating themselves.

Throughout, I explore the boundaries of the meta- in metalanguage, although it is a meta- that also crops up in very different guises in terms such as metadata, metaprogramming, and metaphilosophy. Metalanguage is often simplified as “language about language”, but doing so raises questions about when it is possible or useful to tell whether something is metalanguage or not. It also asks us to distinguish whether something is language or not, a formulation that is crucial in historical accounts of subaltern subjects who are often asked to ‘speak’ through their (potentially symbolic) actions or situations, rather than through their written or spoken words, which have often gone unrecorded (Spivak 1999; 1988; 1984). Thus an account of a pirate shredding a ship’s deed invites further analysis of whether the pirate was indeed committing a linguistic act, as well as the extent to which that act was also metalinguistic.

In the context of the reflexivity or intentions of a speaker of metalanguage, Jaworski et al. draw on Jakobson and Silverstein to address this question of boundaries in terms of dimensions, including to what extent they might be more explicit or more implicit. In so doing, though, they also draw attention to the danger that such dimensions or scales, such as explicit versus implicit, may indeed appear dichotomous (Jaworski, Coupland, and Galasiński 2004, 54–7; e.g. Silverstein 1993). Yet this dichotomous nature is also a danger of metalanguage more broadly, for even to use the somewhat simplistic formation of metalanguage as “language about language” is already to draw boundaries, two of which in particular are worthy of further exploration. First, to assert that something is metalanguage is to claim that it is possible to know what language is, thereby dividing the world into language and not-language. For, to claim that language is about language, it is of course necessary to know what language is. So for example, sentences would belong to the group of language, and pirates (the living or formerly living beings, to the extent that they can even be considered apart from the term pirates) to not-language.

Second, claims of metalanguage also implicitly assert that language might be further divided into two groups. The first group is language-about-language, or metalanguage, and the second is language-not-about-language, or not-metalanguage. Thus the sentence, “language is important”, would belong to the first group, whereas the sentence, “pirates are important,” would belong to the second. Yet the boundaries between these two (admittedly oversimplified) groups are deserving of further scrutiny, for it is easily possible to come up with items that transgress these boundaries. For example, paradoxes of the flavor of Bertrand Russel’s paradox or René Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe),” might belong to both and neither group. For example, consider the sentences, “this is not language,” and “this sentence is not metalanguage.” The first is both language and (if we accept its truthclaim) not-language. Similarly, the second is both metalanguage and not, provided there is a chance that its truthclaim is valid. It is this last group, of partial paradoxes on the boundaries between language and not-language, and between metalanguage and not-metalanguage, that are the concern of this paper.

I contend that the pirates revealed in these sources belong to this last quasi-paradoxical group, and that their actions, as they are depicted in the sources, are both language and not language at the same time. I argue this point by developing two contradictory sub-arguments. First, I show that the ways these pirates are depicted destroying texts is an act that potentially was linguistic, in the sense that the linguistic content of the texts did play a role in their acts of destruction. Second, I also show that their preservation of texts was not necessarily linguistic, because language as a separate and identifiable concept need not have been relevant to their actions. Destroying a document such as a deed or contract does appear to call attention to the text’s linguistic (indexical) power, even if by negating that power. Similarly, preserving a document might be an attempt at maintaining its linguistic power, or it might have a different purpose altogether. It might instead focus on its economic and practical value without signaling any use, recognition, or access to the document’s textual and linguistic worth. The acts of these pirates, as they are given in the sources, therefore emerge as being both affirmatively metalanguage and not metalanguage at all. Mapping out when and why this happens can provide texture to the application of the idea of the Meta more broadly.

The Destruction of Documents

The king asking him how he durst molest the seas so, he replied with a free spirit, ‘How dares thou molest the whole world? But because I do with a little ship only, I am called a thief: thou doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor. (St. Augustine’s City of God (1972), cf. Pérotin-Dumon (2001, 25).


Benito de Soto lived from 1805 to 1830, during the decline of what, with variable dates, has been referred to as the Golden Age of Caribbean piracy. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries more broadly, piracy in the Atlantic developed from a crime on par with smuggling or illicit trade into a catch-all term for the extremes of moral corruption (Baer 1982, 4–9). This was due partly to the successive waves of piracy over this period. Atlantic pirates were originally called filibusters, and many of them were merchants who hoped to open up trade routes through conquest, outside of all regulation. They were increasingly joined by buccaneers, the members of a society of escaped slaves and indentured servants, related to Maroon communities, who flourished on the smaller islands of the Caribbean (Neill 2000, 165–6). Their nautical pursuits succeeded and they became such a force in the region that at times they were even used as a spontaneous militia for the colonial governments–thereby serving as a group of politically-useful outlaws, a function that has far from disappeared.[13]

By the early 1800s, however, the picture was radically different. The consolidation of trade routes required the politicization of the ocean as a way of policing the new oligarchies of seaborne trade (Mancke 1999).[14] This, coupled with expansions in state power, in turn enabled more concerted policing of the fewer, larger routes, which in turn yielded the enormous profits necessary to support such a crackdown. This then inspired pirates to consolidate and go after ever-larger prizes in the open ocean. Indeed, one of de Soto’s crew, the pirate Nicholas Fernandez, suggests that he first sought out a larger brig to use for high seas piracy once armed convoys made it increasingly difficult to capture vessels within the Caribbean (1830). Over time, and especially as the use of standing navies grew in place of sea-born mercenary forces, characterizations of piracy became increasingly extreme. Gradually, piracy became linked to treason instead of banditry, and became comparable to contemporary definitions of terrorism.[15] Indeed, when capital punishment was fully abolished in Britain in 1998, after over thirty years of disuse, it was by an act that threw out the penalty of death for the only two crimes that still merited it: piracy and treason (Crime and Disorder Act, Ch. 37 1998).

Pirates were seen to be diametrically opposed to the dominant order, but self-avowed pirates to some extent also trumped that order–not only by opposing it, but also by half-heartedly ignoring it. As we will see, at different points in their piratical careers, Benito de Soto and his crew pointedly destroyed documents, usurped documents, wrecked their ship for want of official papers, and incriminated themselves by unknowingly wearing their victims’ names. Sometimes opposing mainstream conceptions of language, sometimes obviating it, these pirates dwelt in the boundaries of language and textuality. The next subsection looks more closely at the wanton destruction of documents. The destruction of documents such as ships’ papers might be seen as aggressively metapragmatic in the sense that it comments on the use of written documents to declare ownership. The act of pulverizing an important deed to a ship may readily be seen as a commentary on the futility of such supposedly valuable and inviolable written deeds. In a related move, the very metalinguistic symbolism of this act may be seen as coming not from the pirates recounted in the sources, but from the sources’ authors, as an attempt to present pirates as the antithesis of a civilized individual, such as the author him/herself, who would be expected to value documents like deeds, and texts and books overall. However, this is not the only interpretation, for the treatment of documents was part of much broader patterns of wanton destruction.

 A Golden Age of Shredded Papers and Charts

Upon taking control of a ship, it is reported that often the very first act of many Caribbean pirate captains was to demand the ship’s papers and then, upon receiving them, to destroy them.[16] The methods of such destruction were diverse, ranging from tearing to cutting to burning. For one of de Soto’s captures alone, two possible methods are noted: when the Black Joke took the Morning Star, de Soto’s most infamous capture, one of the pirate crew chopped its papers either ‘in two’ or into ‘inch pieces,’ depending on the witness (Jones 1828). Yet before destroying them, while still aboard his own ship, de Soto apparently pointedly requested that the papers be sent to him together in a rowboat with the captain of the Morning Star, and took to firing cannons at the Morning Star when this order was not followed immediately (Jones 1828).The powerful symbolic nature of such an act is evident in its inclusion within even the briefest newspaper accounts of ship captures.

The documents are imbued with the symbolic authority of the captured vessel. Without them, the ship cannot dock under normal circumstances and the captain is unable to verify his or her command.[17] Therefore, the destruction of the papers highlighted the fact that both ships were now physically and symbolically outside the realm of textual authority. This not only removed the ship from the sphere of law into a realm of illegality, but it also explicitly or implicitly pointed out the feebleness of the laws, charters, decrees, and deeds that bolstered the authority of Western political regimes, which generally privileged texts and textuality. Far from the centers of power, a legal document which might otherwise serve as the kind of evidence used to sentence a pirate to hanging was itself under the direct control of whoever had the most physical power–and often this was the pirate him/herself.

Thus the destruction of the ship’s papers, in this instance, as physical texts and manuscripts, appear to be inherently linguistic, a demonstration of the power that official texts could hold for the far-away governments which first issued them and the subjects who carried them, as evidence of their own authority, aboard the ship. This very need, for the pirate to refute the privileging of texts by ripping them up, points to an awareness and distinct opinion upon the role and function of (textual) language in the world. The message was that such a valuable text, including official seals and signatures–texts which normally would have been highly prized, fiercely guarded, and protected by all aboard–no longer counted. Furthermore, they rendered the ship’s crew and passengers official outlaws as well, requiring them to prove that they were in fact victimized castaways should they ever again reach a port. As such, the pillaging of documents was a powerful, and apparently intentional, method of using documents to both delegitimize and recruit the captives. In addition to acknowledging the importance of documents of ownership by destroying them, pirates are also depicted resisting textual regimes by refusing to obtain their own official papers, or Letters of Marque.

Plunderers’ Permits: Letters of Marque

“Little thieves are hanged. Great ones go free.” (proverb).

The above quotation, in various forms, is alternately attributed as a Russian, British, or American proverb. A related saying, given as an Italian proverb, suggests some justice for the powerful “Little thieves are hanged by the neck, big ones by the purse.” Spurious or not, these sayings indicate how important it is, in discussions of piracy as theft-at-sea, to also consider the broader thefts of capitalism and empire.

Indeed, it is not surprising that pirates might have been familiar with the importance of the written word, because for in the Atlantic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the difference between piracy and patriotic service often depended upon a document. Pirates were a threat not just to their victims, but to the state more broadly, precisely because they encroached upon the earnings of privateers, legal ‘pirates’ who were officially sponsored by a particular state in order to attack the ships of their enemies, a practice that was especially prevalent during the early days of European conquest of the Americas. The need for justification that they were conducting legitimate pillaging was paramount for states who sponsored privateers, because in practice the distinction was often blurred, with the pirates sometimes being recruited to operate as privateers, and with privateers plundering far beyond the limits to which they were legally authorized (Irr 2001; Lane 1998; Neill 2000).

As a solution, the Letter of Marque, also known as a ‘Letter of Marque and Reprisal’, an official document which acted as a form of contract between the state and the ship in question, sufficiently burdened with specific seals from the relevant leaders, became the standard proof offered that a ship was a privateer. This amounted to the assembly of a reserve navy of privateers before standing navies were ever organized (Starkey 2001). A ship with a Letter of Marque, which only attacked enemy ships as stipulated in the letter, acted as a significant boost to the forces of European Empire during times of almost constant war, but they generally differed from pirates only to the extent that they were officially sanctioned to plunder, not in the extent of their use of force (Fuchs 2000).[18]

Privateers functioned in a way that is reminiscent of the use of private contractors or mercenaries in contemporary warfare, and despite the fact that they were generally better equipped than pirate ships, in practice the Letter of Marque was the only state-authorized way to officially differentiate a privateer from a pirate. Privateers’ abiding influence combined with the difficulty of policing their behavior at sea meant that the de jure polarization of pirates and privateers was unable by itself to abolish the de facto similarity of their conduct (Fuchs 2000). Not surprisingly, forgeries of Letters of Marque were common, as was the theft and sale of them to the highest bidder. In at least one documented instance, however, a British captain hoping to plunder ships in the Caribbean obtained a commission from as far away as the Philippines, once French and Portuguese commissions became scarce (Bromley 2001). Privateers were an important force in Atlantic history, although only recently has scholarship in several disciplines begun to draw attention to the economic roles of privateers in the Atlantic (Fuchs 2000; Mackie 2005; Neill 2000; Pérotin-Dumon 2001; Starkey 2001).

It is notable that privateers at least required a Letter of Marque. In contrast, for targets that were considered to be beyond the bounds of civilization, all-out war was legitimate by definition. Attacks against indigenous populations, for example, whether on land or at sea, were widespread and generally accepted–although a pretense of legitimation did not hurt either (Fuchs 2000; Mancke 1999; Ritchie 1986). Thus, pirates were incorporated into the textual record because their targets were ‘legitimate’ ships, yet at the same time they were defined by the absence of such a Letter, by the want of a document. In this light, the pursuit of pirates was also a struggle over discourse, including both the control of any documents the pirates might have stolen, as well as the ability to end in one swoop (namely, by executing the pirates) both the spread of unpermitted plunder as well as related pirate philosophies or creeds. These two aspects of destruction, pirates’ alleged shredding of a ship’s papers and their want of legitimizing documents, could both be considered as a metapragmatic act, an explicit symbolic commentary on what language and textuality do in the world. Thus, some pirates might in fact be conscious of the power conveyed by documents, and be defined by a textual tradition, whether they indicated this by ripping texts apart or simply defying the need to obtain official permits. However, this contrasts with pirates’ preservation of documents, which reveals no such clear boundaries.

Preservation and Death

Pirates were also avid preservers of documents. In addition to shredding a ship’s permits, one of the first treasures pirates generally took when plundering a ship were the valuable navigation charts that ships carried. Often, the ship’s original charts would be very specific to their expected route, and pirates needed to gain as many charts as possible from each ship they captured in order to have the option of moving within a wider space of ocean–and if the charts were not needed in the end, they could be sold.[19]

However, maps and charts were not the only documents among the goods stolen by Caribbean pirates. Documents–at least, those not vigorously ripped to shreds–were also among a ship’s valuable cargo that were appropriated at will. Yet despite the fact that documents were highly prized, sources reveal that spoken and written language, in such instances, was not necessarily mobilized as a concept. According to existing accounts, suspected economic worth most certainly was an element of the theft, but it is not clear to what extent documents and charts were recognized as belonging to a category, discursively and practically, that was in any way separate or special from that which contained all other valuable goods. For example, one man, who claimed to be on board another ship that was captured by de Soto and his crew, reported that they were ‘robbed of all our stores, part of our sails, boat, books, charts, chronometer, barometer, sextants, quadrants, compasses, glasses,’ as well as the cargo book, the manifest, and several cases of biscuits, opium, and hats (Carrew 1828, 3). Thus, in the account, there is little difference given between the cargo book and the biscuits.

On the part of the pirates at least, economic considerations are routinely shown trumping textual or discursive awareness, which suggests that it would be displaced, at least in some instances, to view the theft in terms of its metapragmatic implications. Indeed, in other cases it is not clear whether the pirate in question even knew that documents were inside the items being plundered. For example, in one trial excerpt, the ill-fated explorer Captain James Cook reports that upon being attacked with a sword by a pirate, ‘I parried his blows with the tin box containing the ship’s papers, till I disarmed him’ (The London Times 1850). While it is clear that both Cook and the pirate were well aware that the ship had a set of official documents, and while Cook knew that the ship’s papers were inside the box he used to defend himself, later in the testimony Cook mentions that the pirate asked him if he had brought the documents aboard–thereby suggesting that the pirate had not known what the tin box contained during the fight (The London Times 1850).

Unlike the destruction of papers described above, the un-named pirate attacked the box of documents without regard to the fact that they were texts at all, or that the box of documents necessarily worked in a different or somehow special way than would a box of another material. This shows that, in this case at least, documents were not the pirate’s first priority (although apparently they were his second priority). Instead, the search for documents, and related attempts to identify the contents of the box, were secondary to the need to physically take control of the ship. So an analysis of the heterogeneous goods Caribbean pirates stole, as well as the very practical uses to which documents were sometimes put, including self-defense, suggest that there are instances where it could be mistaken to speak of their depicted actions as being metapragmatic or metalinguistic.

In these instances we see a fully pragmatic use of language in its material forms, yet one where language is so fully implicated in the material world as to lose the discursive specificity that would lend substance to a metapragmatic analysis. Foucault’s (1978, 36) argument that it required ongoing effort to achieve the “transformation of sex into discourse”, and the related emergence of sexuality as a visible sphere of life, might thus equally be applied to language. Perhaps there is nothing natural or given about the separation of language into its own sphere. Indeed, Foucault showed that sexuality was produced in no small part through a proliferation of categories of deviance that isolated specific sexual acts. In contrast, here there is an apparent aversion to separating out the utterances, gestures, inscriptions, scribbling, etchings, and varied inscriptions into objects considered texts that form part of a broader sphere of communication that came to be called language.

Pirates Caught Wearing Their Victims’ Names

This pirate was, forsooth, something of a philosopher in his way.

(Quoted from Cicero’s On the Commonwealth (Barham 1842)).

One further example demonstrates the danger of overextending the conceptualization of language as a separate and abstract category of experience, and of taking for granted the boundaries between language and non-language. As in the above case, here is an apparent effort to claim and preserve language that nonetheless, upon further examination, reveals a disregard for language altogether. To adapt Mary Douglas’s (2002) formulation about matter out of place, language out of place might simply be dirt, since the loss of context makes it not only unintelligible, but also unrecognizable as language. Moreover, in certain cases the accounts are indeterminate to such an extent that there is no clear boundary between where the language ends and the dirt begins.

The destruction and theft of documents were not the only ways that de Soto and his crew used texts in the course of their rampages. Having captured enough ships to live a life of material ease, they deliberately crashed their ship onto a coast that they believed to be in North Africa–and which was in fact, the sources agree, Cadiz, in the Spanish province of Galicia. De Soto and his crew hoped to be allowed to come aground without the proper documents by pretending to be shipwrecked slave traders. In order to make the farce seem real, the pirates forced their prisoner, the former first mate of their mutinied ship, to dress up like his former captain, Maris de Sousa Saamento, an officer in the Brazilian navy and the son of an admiral (London 1830).

Authorities soon began to suspect something when they realized that the ship’s manifest listed twenty-six unaccounted-for men and boys and that none of the surviving passengers and crew could give a convincing account of where the missing sailors had gone. Nonetheless, with ‘all of the assistance and relief’ of the local Vice-Consul and several other ‘gentleman of respectability,’ the castaways were conveyed into Cadiz, where they took advantage of the local hospitality and soon aroused more suspicion due to their remarkable wealth and exceedingly disorderly conduct (London 1830). The conceit might still have worked, however, except for the unfortunate coincidence that their former Brazilian captain’s father was a good friend of the local Portuguese Vice-Consul. Likewise, their cause was not aided by the questionable behavior of the new Captain who, every time he passed the city gates–against all military custom–would nervously salute the guards (London 1830).

De Soto and his crew captured many ships, and accounts of them are notable for the cruelty they contain, even by the standards of the time, and in comparison to other similar accounts. However, it is notable that the final straw that sent them to the execution block was the fact that they were discovered wearing text that was out of place. Upon their eventual capture, many of de Soto’s men were wearing clothes that still bore the names of their victims, literally embroidered into their coats and collars. De Soto, for his part, had escaped to Gibraltar, where he was captured with a large trunk containing a shirt inscribed with the name ‘T. Goodwin,’ the former captain of the Morning Star, their most famous capture (Aymerich 1828).[20]

On a practical level, such an obvious mistake seems to be a serious oversight even for those who might have been illiterate. They may still very well recognize the incriminating possibilities of a text, even if they could not read it. Numerous possible explanations exist for the fact that de Soto’s crew donned the names of their victims. It could be seen as an act of defiance, although in that case, they would have also realized that the monograms would be incriminating. It might also be viewed as an act of ignorance, if they were unfamiliar with the practice of monogramming clothes which was nonetheless very common at the time. In that case, they would be caught by their inability to assimilate into dominant textual and linguistic regimes. More likely, however, it was purely pragmatic, albeit in a practical sense rather than a linguistic one. Possibly, after months at sea, they could not resist donning some of the luxurious clothes, whether or not they noticed that the embroidery contained letters. The pirates may not have been ‘speaking’ through the act of putting on the embroidered clothes. The embroidery that ultimately incriminated them may, at the time, have seemed irrelevant. In this case, then, language wasn’t alterity, but dirt (Douglas 2002). The embroidery might have been there, in the background together, say, with the color of the buttons of the coat, but so seemingly unimportant that it didn’t even form into a verbal expression or a fully-worded thought. In this case, language wasn’t absent, but neither was it fully present as text.

In contrast to the destruction of documents, then, the preservation of linguistic objects on the part of de Soto and his crew, such as the secreting away of nautical charts together with other plunder and the donning of victims’ clothes, indicates both an awareness of the objects and an instrumental use of them that fails to distinguish their economic and practical value from their linguistic importance. As tempting as it may be, it is not productive to only speak of these acts of preservation–of pirates’ attempts to do things to these documents and texts–as metapragmatic. If the sources which report these acts seek to highlight their linguistic aspects, then it is all the more important to acknowledge the possibilities of other analyses that crowd the margins–indeed, of interpretations that attempt to move past a privileging of language and textuality.


Figure 1: The frontispiece of the original Dutch edition of Exquemelin’s work, showing scenes of the torture inflicted by pirates that are eerily similar to depictions of the violence perpetrated by Spanish conquistadors during this era. The Dutch text reads [Sic] ‘De Americaensche Zee-Roovers, Behelsende een Partinente Verhael van alle de Roverye En Onmenselijcke Vreetheeden die de Engelsche en Franse Roovers Tegens de Spanijaerden in America Gepleeght Hebben.’ (‘The American Buccaneers [literally: ‘sea-robbers’ or ‘sea-bandits’], Including a Pertinent Story of all of the Banditry and Inhuman Atrocities that the English and French Bandits Have Committed against the Spanish in America.’) (Exquemelin 1972. Image retrieved on 6 September 2016;
Figure 1: The frontispiece of the original Dutch edition of Exquemelin’s work, showing scenes of the torture inflicted by pirates that are eerily similar to depictions of the violence perpetrated by Spanish conquistadors during this era. The Dutch text reads [Sic] ‘De Americaensche Zee-Roovers, Behelsende een Partinente Verhael van alle de Roverye En Onmenselijcke Vreetheeden die de Engelsche en Franse Roovers Tegens de Spanijaerden in America Gepleeght Hebben.’ (‘The American Buccaneers [literally: ‘sea-robbers’ or ‘sea-bandits’], Including a Pertinent Story of all of the Banditry and Inhuman Atrocities that the English and French Bandits Have Committed against the Spanish in America.’) (Exquemelin 1972. Image retrieved on 6 September 2016;


Conclusion: Writing as Theft

D-an ye, reply’d Bellamy, I am a free Prince and I have as much Authority to make War on the whole World as he who has a hundred Sail of Ships at Sea, and an Army of 100,000 men in the Field; and this my conscience tells me. (Samuel Bellamy to Captain Beer, his captive, quoted in (Johnson 1972).

In this article, I have analyzed the ambiguous boundaries of language among pirates who plundered official documents. The destruction of some documents served to reaffirm the linguistic aspects of pirates’ actions, while their preservation of others revealed that, to pirates, language might not have been a meaningful concept. These accounts demonstrate that pirates’ treatment of documents constituted both language and not-language, both metalanguage and not-metalanguage, at the same time. So the notion of the Meta in metalanguage is a slippery one. Yet in some instances pirates did engage in quite clear linguistic acts. Pirates named their ships, designed their own flags, changed their own names, and manipulated definitions of trade and commerce to their own ends. So if, as I argue in the introduction, researchers can be pirates, then by way of returning to the framing of piracy, it is helpful to conclude with a brief exploration of how historical pirates indeed could also be writers.

Even for pirates who would not have called themselves authors, they might still be considered inscribers of a kind. Many pirates wrote text in the sense that they named their ships and wrote or drew their own flags. In the case of Benito de Soto, textuality played specific roles in the masquerade which led to the eventual execution of both de Soto and his companions, the crew of the Defensor de Pedro, a former slave ship[21] that they had renamed the Black Joke. The very renaming of the ship ironically indexes or indicates very different cultural attributes–namely, ‘black’ or morbid humor, as well as the unspeakably devastating ‘joke’ of slavery–than the regal overtones of the initial name, which alluded to the (then-king) of Brazil. In terms of flags, to say that a good number of pirates were illiterate is in some ways a misnomer, because in addition to knowing how to navigate by reading the stars in the sky, many of them would have been familiar with a whole host of both national and territorial flags, used to either soothe or terrify their captives, as well as signal flags used to communicate between ships while at sea. The use of the flag to identify a particular pirate, especially one known to show no mercy, could go a long way towards subduing potential victims.

Pirates also toyed with their own identities, including nationalities, aliases, and the legal definitions of their actions. The members of de Soto’s crew had multiple nationalities, including French, Spanish, Brazilian, Portuguese, and two Africans whose specific place of birth is not listed (Aymerich 1828). Nicholas Fernandez himself was born in Spain, raised in Cuba, became a mariner in New Orleans, and sailed with de Soto out of Rio de Janeiro (Fernandez 1830). They also had multiple names. The documents concerning the Black Joke point out four or five names for several members of the crew, a combination of aliases and nicknames. A pirate’s reputation depended on a name that would inspire fear, but any particular pirate’s name could incorporate several pirates who adopted it in succession, if need be, or could be dropped so that its original bearer avoided capture.

In addition, some pirates wrote emblems of modern nations: articles, or constitutions, which governed their conduct (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000; Rediker 2004), and not uncommonly had their stories recorded while they sat awaiting execution.[22] Yet often, when text is attributed to pirates, it is the result of several un-named authors. For example, the testimony of Nicholas Fernandez, one of de Soto’s crew who was later executed for piracy, was released as a sobriety pamphlet. The almost word-for-word correspondence among sections of Fernandez’s account with the appended paragraphs of ‘extracts from the well written productions of very able authors on this subject,’ suggests substantial rewriting on the part of the publisher (Fernandez 1830).

Thus, even when a single denotative text is extant for a pirate, it indexes a multiplicity of not only discursive roles, but also of potential authors. More broadly, pirates who did not themselves write nonetheless did also serve as authors of a sort, by acting in order to instill fear not just in their immediate witnesses, but also in the audiences of those who lived to tell the tale, and publish it widely. The willingness to go bravely to the scaffold, then–perhaps shouting all the while–was another way that pirates inserted themselves into the textual record as an identifiable speaking subject, not only in the hope that their own words were recorded, but also that their very ferociousness would help others in their piratical pursuits.

Authors, Pirates No More

On rare occasions, individual pirates became authors and researchers, in the sense that they created documents–most notably, maps, journals, and navigational charts. However, they often did so specifically in order to signal that they were not (or were no longer) pirates. Many of these were the work of pirates turned explorers and conquerors, like William Dampier, Francis Drake, and (allegedly) Captain Cook (Pennell 2001).[23] In their now famous travel journals, they paint themselves as men of science as a way of distancing themselves from their former peers, thereby indicating that pirates might use the importance attributed to the ability to read and write as a way of changing their identities from pirates to explorers or adventurers (Neill 2000). The Dutch-French author Alexander Exquemelin (John Esquemeling), perhaps the most famous biographer of Caribbean pirates, was himself a former indentured servant who first turned pirate, then popular historian.[24] However, by creating an identity as a scientist or author in order to overcome their identity as pirate, these exceptions prove the rule that pirates, in contrast to the variety of examples above, were expected to stand in opposition to textual traditions.

The contrast between these types of expectations and pirates’ variegated linguistic and non-linguistic acts further shows the difficulty of attributing metalanguage to them, and of considering many of their actions as linguistic. Even as writers in the broadest sense, pirates neither were incorporated into the dominant order nor were mobilizing its rules to work against it. Definitions of piracy were particularly significant in light of the feeble line drawn between pirates and privateers, as well as the accusations that were often made against victims who accepted pirates’ offers, often at the threat of death, to join up and become pirates themselves. Such definitions are apparent emblems of pirates’ linguistic ideologies more broadly: they exhibit a sort of sloppy subjectivity to an extent that proves that the notion of a speaking or writing individual wasn’t present, wasn’t absent–but was simply not that relevant.

The relationships between pirates’ violence on the one hand, and the violence of government and economic actors on the other, serve to highlight the danger of privileging text and language. Put another way, the victims of pirates were also often violent, including military and merchant officers who upheld the brutal labor conditions aboard many ships. So, it would be a mistake to take authors’ depictions of innocent victims of alleged pirate atrocities at face value, thereby attributing credence to the written sources and their language simply because they are what remains. Similarly, it would be misguided to assume that the authors and publishers of accounts about pirates were disinterested players who themselves had no interest in perpetuating violence. Indeed, Alexander Exquemelin (1972) took macabre delight in portraying pirates as rogues who brutalized Spanish conquistadors in the Americas. It is highly debatable whether this was an attempt at a factual account, or whether he was simply pandering to those who felt the full violence of the Spanish empire among their subject populations in Europe–including the Dutch (Figure 1).

Regardless, de Soto and his crew came to violent ends. De Soto, for his part, was hanged in British Gibraltar, the city of his arrest and initial refuge from the law. Of those on board, only José Santos and Joaquin Palabra escaped imprisonment or execution. Santos dropped from the historical record by going into hiding. Palabra, a young adolescent of African ancestry who was between thirteen and fifteen years old, received a very cruel sentence nonetheless–he was returned to slavery in Brazil. The other African sailor, also named Joaquin though no last name is given, who had been a slave of the previous captain, also did not escape cruelty: he was murdered by the crew along with several others aboard for fear that he would turn them in.[25]

This article more fully contextualizes the variegated boundaries of language that are invoked through use of the Meta. I have investigated the ways that pirates, and the documents they abused, might serve as both valid linguistic objects and subjects. At the same time I have shown that, primarily through Pirates’ very apathy and inattention, they also serve to completely obviate the conceptions of language that are the substance and context of metapragmatic discourse. Thus, in these cases, the pirates’ actions both were and were not linguistic–or at the very least, semiotic. In order to further extend metapragmatic theory, it is therefore important to develop a better understanding of the boundaries where such definitions overlap, clash, merge and more, and to avoid the semi-conscious privileging of written language which is the outcome of the many textual traditions of scholarship. One of the most fruitful ways to do so is through research literally at the boundaries of sociolinguistic theory–including topics such as historical reported speech, subaltern groups, the materiality of discourse, and the relationship between specifically linguistic utterances and broader semiotic systems of meaning. Stefan Helmreich (2008) has proposed the notion of underwater anthropology to encourage the further focus on sound as a means of moving culture. I would like to add that, as pirates of an academic sort, it is only fair that academics more broadly begin to substantively recognize our oceanic and piratical origins.



Voorbij het multiculturalisme van Will Kymlicka?


Vrij snel na het verschijnen van Liberalism, community and culture (1989) en Multicultural citizenship (1995) werd Will Kymlicka’s werk de locus classicus binnen het politiek-filosofisch multiculturalismedebat. In grote mate kan dit werk worden begrepen als een aanvulling op en verfijning van de centrale uitgangspunten van het egalitair-liberalisme van Ronald Dworkin en John Rawls (Levrau 2015). Zo bekritiseert Kymlicka beide auteurs omdat zij ervan uitgaan dat de maatschappelijke cultuur – de cultuur van een intergenerationele gemeenschap die een bepaald territorium en een gedeelde taal heeft, maar die tevens institutioneel compleet is, opties aanreikt voor het private en publieke leven en een zekere geschiedenis kent – voor elk lid op een vergelijkbare wijze toegankelijk is. Kymlicka wijst erop dat dit voor etnisch-culturele minderheidsgroepen niet het geval is en dat zij precies daarom behoefte hebben aan multiculturele compensatiemaatregelen. In dit artikel tonen we aan waarom Kymlicka’s poging om het egalitair-liberalisme aan een gediversifieerde maatschappelijke realiteit aan te passen eigenlijk nog niet ver genoeg gaat.

We starten met een analyse van de manier waarop Kymlicka de verhouding tussen autonomie en constitutieve bindingen duidt. We tonen daarbij aan dat hij, als liberaal denker, vertrekt vanuit de assumptie dat mensen autonoom in-de-wereld staan en dus over de mogelijkheid beschikken zelf te bepalen hoe zij hun leven inrichten. Anders dan bijvoorbeeld Van Leeuwen in een aantal teksten stelt, hoeft dit evenwel niet te betekenen dat Kymlicka’s theorie daarom monistisch is. Kymlicka’s liberaal-multiculturalisme berust wel degelijk ook op een sterk erkenningsargument, dat wil zeggen dat hij erkent dat immigranten op een constitutieve wijze zijn gebonden aan culturele kaders en dat het verbreken van die binding tot een verlies van integriteit kan leiden. Sterker nog, die constitutieve binding is precies de reden waarom hij de maatschappelijke instituties van de meederheidsgroep wil aanpassen zodanig dat immigranten er meer in worden weerspiegeld. Wat Kymlicka echter te weinig verdisconteert, is dat ook leden van de meerderheidsgroep constitutief aan allerlei ‘manieren van leven’ kunnen zijn gebonden zijn waardoor ook voor hen de toegang tot de centrale instituties van de maatschappelijke cultuur problematisch kan zijn. Een egalitair-liberaal beleid dat elke burger met gelijke zorg en respect behandelt, moet daarom ‘culturele kwetsbaarheid’ ruimer definiëren dan de kwetsbaarheid van etnisch-culturele minderheden. Wat derhalve nodig is, is een verschuiving van multiculturalisme naar wat we ‘pluriforme accommodatie’ zullen noemen. Elke vraag om erkenning – waarbij het op zich niet zoveel uitmaakt welk etiket er precies op de claim kan worden geplakt (wordt de vraag om erkenning geformuleerd vanuit een etnisch-culturele of religieuze of meer ‘prozaïsche’ binding?) – dient te worden geprojecteerd tegen dezelfde achtergrond van objectieve en neutrale criteria die bepalen of de claim al dan niet accommodeerbaar is. Naar het einde van dit artikel toe noemen we op summiere wijze een aantal van die criteria. In een besluit recapituleren we de essentie van ons betoog.

Tegelijk – en tevens de achtergrond tegen dewelke deze analyse dient te worden gelezen –wordt met het argument om voorbij het multiculturalisme van Kymlicka te denken, een perspectief geformuleerd ten aanzien van de demografische toestand van superdiversiteit. Immers, waar Kymlicka nog sterk redeneert in de context van een ontvangende, liberale orde en etnisch-culturele migrantengroepen, is de demografische én politieke werkelijkheid er thans een van een gedurige diversiteit die niet enkel of primair als ‘migratie’ kan of moet worden gedacht. Mensen kunnen niet altijd zomaar van elkaar worden onderscheiden volgens de klassieke demarcatie van ‘meerderheid-minderheid’. Wel integendeel, verschillende grootsteden worden thans in toenemende mate ‘majority-minority cities’, waarbij de meerderheid van de bewoners net uit een waaier van minderheden bestaat (Geldof 2013). Een focus op etnisch-culturaliteit, verdonkermaant bovendien dat ‘diversiteit’ ook anders kan en naar onze overtuiging moet ingevuld worden, bijvoorbeeld via niet essentialistische concepties van cultuur, waarbij cultuur niet langer verwijst naar een soort grootste gemeenschappelijke deler of brede context die mensen aan elkaar bindt, maar naar een individuele manier van in-der-Welt-sein. Deze idiosyncratische positie capteren we hieronder middels de term ‘conceptie van het goede leven’. Deze conceptie kan een etnisch-cultureel of levensbeschouwelijk karakter hebben, maar zij kan ook meer ‘prozaïsch’ worden ingevuld en gerelateerd zijn aan levensstijlen, subculturen en persoonlijke overtuigingen. In een tijd waar kritische stemmen zich vrolijk maken over het epitaaf dat de dood van het multiculturalisme verkondigt, kan een ‘inclusieve politiek van pluriforme accommodatie’ identitaire verschillen opnieuw positief agenderen. Iedereen verschijnt immers als een gelijke voor de wet van het verschil. Met de nivellering van ‘bindingen’ wordt diversiteit uit de etnisch-culturele en religieuze hoek gehaald, waardoor het argument – of althans het gevoel – dat etnisch-culturele minderheden of gelovigen worden bevoordeeld wanneer zij door een multiculturele politiek worden geaccommodeerd niet meer opgaat. Dat betekent niet dat alle maatschappelijke spanningen zullen worden gedempt of gedepolitiseerd – het politieke en filosofische debat over waarom erkenning van diversiteit überhaupt moet worden doorgevoerd, ligt bijvoorbeeld nog lang niet in een definitieve plooi. Echter, precies omdat pluriforme accommodatie individualiteit en contextualiteit in rekening brengt, en omdat vanaf het begin duidelijk is dat compenserend beleid niet één groep toekomt of niet slechts wordt uitgerold ten voordele van één type erkenningsclaims, kunnen allerhande vormen van agonisme en strijd mogelijks constructiever worden gevoerd.

Autonomie: Kymlicka vs. Rawls

Voor Kymlicka is het individu in de eerste plaats een autonoom wezen, een wezen dat dus in staat is om zijn ends (d.w.z. concepties van het goede leven, doeleinden, projecten, liefdes, bindingen etc.) kritisch te bevragen en waar nodig bij te sturen of zelfs op te geven. Kymlicka onderschrijft dan ook herhaaldelijk datgene wat Rawls aangeeft, namelijk dat individuen ‘do not view themselves as inevitably tied to the pursuit of the particular conception of the good and its final ends which they espouse at any given time. Instead, they are capable of revising and changing this conception. They can “stand back” from their current ends to “survey and assess” their worthiness’ (Kymlicka 1995: 81; Rawls 1980: 544).[1] In later werk heeft Rawls zijn theorie echter bijgesteld. Mensen, zo luidt het in zijn Political liberalism (1993), zouden niet alleen op een constitutieve wijze zijn gebonden aan hun morele motivaties, maar ook aan bepaalde ends.

‘By contrast, citizens in their personal affairs, or within the internal life of associations, may regard their ends and aspirations differently. They may have attachments and loves that they believe they would not or could not, stand apart from; and they might regard it as unthinkable for them to view themselves without certain religious and philosophical convictions and commitments’ (Rawls 1980: 544-545; 1993: 31).

Rawls verdisconteert dus dat mensen zich in hun persoonlijk leven niet noodzakelijk tot autonomie aangesproken weten, maar zich laten leiden door (heteronome) culturele bindingen. Hij verwerpt echter niet het idee van autonomie, maar wil het alleen beperken tot het politieke domein. In de politieke sfeer moeten mensen met andere woorden worden begrepen als wezens die afstand kunnen nemen van hun ends.

Kymlicka volgt deze rawlsiaanse bijstelling – een bijstelling die Rawls introduceerde teneinde enigszins aan het mensbeeld van het communitarisme tegemoet te komen – maar hij gaat niet zover als Rawls om het liberalisme als een neutrale (politieke) theorie te willen voorstellen. Kymlicka (1992 en 1995) vindt dat het political liberalism van Rawls uiteindelijk nog steeds autonomy-based is en stelt dat Rawls daar dan ook beter voor had kunnen uitkomen. Het probleem bij Rawls, zo schrijft Kymlicka (1995: 160), is dat het moeilijk is om uit te leggen

‘why anyone would accept the ideal of autonomy in political contexts unless they also accepted it more generally. If the members of a religious community see their religious ends as constitutive, so that they have no ability to stand back and assess these ends, why would they accept a political conception of the person which assumes that they do have that ability (and indeed a “highest-order interest” in excersing that ability)?’

Rawls legt niet uit (en kan dat volgens Kymlicka ook niet) waarom mensen in hun private leven zouden mogen leven als communitaristen (cf. als fundamenteel gebonden individuen), maar in het publieke leven als liberalen (cf. als individuen die in staat zijn los te komen van hun bindingen). Als het inderdaad zo zou zijn dat mensen niet kunnen loskomen van hun bindingen, dan moet het beleid bijvoorbeeld ook illiberale claims erkennen omdat het altijd mogelijk is dat mensen op een constitutieve wijze kunnen zijn gebonden aan illiberale ends. Rawls erkent echter geen illiberale claims en precies daarom is zijn political liberalism eigenlijk weinig overtuigend als een alternatief voor het comprehensive liberalism dat stelt dat mensen altijd en overal autonoom zijn. Kymlicka erkent dat het soms moeilijk kan zijn om de diepste ends bij te stellen of op te geven, maar uiteindelijk geldt dat geen enkel end buiten (potentiële) revisie valt.

‘What is central to the liberal view is not that we can perceive a self prior to its ends, but that we understand our selves to be prior to our ends, in the sense that no end or goal is exempt from possible re-examination. (…) My self is, in this sense, perceived prior to its ends, i.e. I can always envisage myself without its present ends (…). There must always be some ends given with the self when we engage in such reasoning, but it doesn’t follow that any particular ends must always be taken as given with the self. (…) [W]hat is given with the self can, and sometimes does change over the course of a lifetime’ (Kymlicka 1989: 52; 1995: 90-92).

Het belang dat Kymlicka in zijn theorie aan ‘autonomie’ hecht, kan nauwelijks worden onderschat. Vrijwel alle belangrijke differentiaties die hij maakt zijn namelijk van het autonomiebeginsel afgeleid (zie ook Van Leeuwen 2002 en 2006). Zo huldigt hij als egalitair-liberaal het onderscheid tussen ‘keuze’ en ‘omstandigheid’ waarbij alleen de nadelen die voortvloeien uit ongekozen omstandigheden moeten worden gecompenseerd. Hij maakt ook een onderscheid tussen de culturele structuur die als omstandigheid geduid wordt (mensen kiezen er niet voor geboren te worden in deze of gene societal culture) en het culturele karakter dat precies omwille van de autonomie van mensen kan veranderen en dus niet moet worden beschermd via een communitaristische politics of the common good.[2] Verder maakt hij een onderscheid tussen nationale minderheden en immigrantengroepen die respectievelijk onvrijwillig zijn geïncorporeerd in een grotere staat en vrijwillig de eigen nationale cultuur hebben verlaten.[3] Tot slot is er het onderscheid tussen interne restricties en externe protecties. Interne restricties zijn claims van minderheidsgroepen om de vrijheid en gelijkheid van dissidente groepsleden te schenden. Kymlicka bepleit, als liberaal, geen accommodatie van dit soort claims. Externe protecties daarentegen veronderstellen dat de culturele eigenheid als basis voor vrijheid en gelijkheid wordt beschermd tegen ingrepen van de meerderheidsgroep. Het zijn dit soort protecties waarover het liberaal-multiculturalisme van Kymlicka gaat.

Autonomie en constitutieve bindingen: een kritiek op Van Leeuwen

Volgens Van Leeuwen (2002 en 2006) vormt het belang van autonomie het exclusieve normfunderend aspect van Kymlicka’s multiculturele theorie. Zijn autonomie-ideaal zou de aanspraak op erkenning tot één zelfde type herleiden en het multiculturalisme vanuit de beperking van één morele logica verdedigen – vandaar dat Van Leeuwen Kymlicka’s werk monistische allures toedicht. ‘What cannot be affirmed in this theory is that social attachments are themselves of value and of relevance for members of social groups’ (Van Leeuwen 2006: 406). Culturele bindingen zouden dus, althans volgens Van Leeuwen, door Kymlicka alleen maar worden erkend omwille van hun instrumentele rol – dat wil zeggen omdat ze het palet bieden op basis waarvan het individu op een autonome manier keuzes kan maken. Deze instrumentele logica zou het intrinsieke belang negeren dat mensen aan hun maatschappelijke cultuur hechten. Van Leeuwen (2002 en 2006) stelt verder dat het weinig waarschijnlijk is dat leden van etnisch-culturele groepen hun binding met een groep of cultuur (enkel maar) ervaren als een conditie voor reflectie en keuze. Minderheidsgroepen, zo geeft hij aan, zijn niet zozeer verwikkeld in een erkenningsstrijd omdat zij daarmee een vertrouwd medium willen veiligstellen waarmee ze hun eigen opties kunnen verhelderen, maar omdat zij zin ontlenen aan het besef van verbondenheid met een unieke traditie of culturele groep. Hij contrasteert dit inzicht met Kymlicka’s zogenaamde reductie van respect voor etnisch-culturele bindingen tot respect voor autonomie en stelt dan dat Kymlicka te weinig recht doet aan de betekenis van bindingen vanuit een intern perspectief.

Wij lezen Kymlicka echter op een andere wijze. Het klopt dat de multiculturele bescherming van cultuur – in casu de cultuur als structuur oftewel als keuzecontext – bij Kymlicka steeds een instrumentele operatie is, maar het is niet steeds enkel een instrumentele operatie om de individuele autonomie veilig te stellen. Het is Kymlicka wel degelijk ook te doen om de veiligstelling van het zelfrespect dat mensen ontlenen aan de erkenning van hun fundamentele en niet-inwisselbare verbondenheid met die societal culture (zoals die verbondenheid bijvoorbeeld bij immigranten tot uiting komt in het feit dat ze in de societal culture van aankomst erkenning vragen voor praktijken en tradities waaraan ze in hun oorspronkelijke societal culture verknocht waren). Wanneer Kymlicka (1997: 83) bijvoorbeeld zegt ‘it is the instrumental, not the intrinsic, value of culture which grounds claims for political powers and resources in my liberal theory’, dan wil hij zich vooral afzetten tegen de communitaristische opvatting die stelt dat culturen op zichzelf een waarde hebben en derhalve moeten worden beschermd – desnoods tegen de belangen van de individuen in – via een politics of the common good.

‘As a result, while individuals are free to adopt such an attitude for themselves, and to try to persuade others to do so, it doesn’t allow the group to restrict the basic civil liberties of its members in the name of the “sacredness” of a particular cultural tradition or practice. It is up to the individuals themselves to decide how sacred they view the particular traditions and practices of their culture’ (Kymlicka 1997: 83).

Kymlicka zegt dus inderdaad niet dat culturen op zich van waarde zijn; maar hij ontkent daarmee niet dat culturen (en de opties waaraan men binnen die maatschappelijke cultuur is verknoopt) in de ogen van de participerende individuen een intrinsieke, constitutieve waarde kunnen hebben. Van Leeuwen beaamt dit, maar stelt dat de morele betekenis van die band met een maatschappelijke cultuur slechts een afgeleide zou zijn omdat individuele autonomie onmogelijk is zonder de vertrouwdheid en identificatie met een culturele context. ‘Het morele belang van de band is dus afgeleid van het morele belang van autonomie, het is er immers een voorwaarde voor. Het logische gevolg is dat culturele bindingen als zodanig niet zijn beschermd’ (Van Leeuwen 2002: 176). Dat het intrinsieke belang slechts een afgeleide betekenis zou zijn en dat de bindingen op zich in het werk van Kymlicka niet zouden zijn beschermd, overtuigt ons niet helemaal.[4]

In het geval van immigranten is duidelijk hoe Kymlicka’s erkenningsbeleid zowel gericht is op autonomie – de maatschappelijke gelijkheid en vrijheid van immigranten wordt bespoedigd wanneer men de meerderheidsinstituties van de nieuwe societal culture aanpast in functie van het identitaire verschil – als op de erkenning van het intrinsiek belang dat immigranten hechten aan hun bindingen met de vorige societal culture. Dat immigranten gehecht blijven aan hun eigen maatschappelijke cultuur vormt voor Kymlicka, anders dan wat Van Leeuwen laat schijnen, wel degelijk meer dan alleen een praktisch bezwaar. Zo kunnen we denken dat Kymlicka niet zou instemmen met een hypothetische machine, procedure of pil die snel en pijnloos de banden met een minderheidscultuur in een hechting aan de meerderheidscultuur kan omzetten, precies omdat hij de fundamentele verknoping van mensen aan hun vorige societal culture erkent. ‘Like self-government rights, these polyethnic rights are not seen as temporary, because the cultural differences they protect are not something we seek to eliminate’ (Kymlicka 1995: 31). Het is precies omwille van de waarde die individuen aan culturele praktijken, tradities en opvattingen kunnen hechten dat Kymlicka zoveel inspanningen levert om immigranten de politieke rechten en vrijheden te bieden om in de societal culture van aankomst te leven volgens de praktijken en opvattingen waaraan ze zich sinds lang ver/gebonden weten. Mensen die vrijheid ontnemen – bijvoorbeeld het multiculturalisme voor immigranten niet implementeren – betekent een kaakslag voor het zelfrespect omdat immigranten dat respect precies voor een deel ontlenen aan het respect dat men voor die unieke bindingen krijgt.[5]

Waaraan immigranten dus hun respect ontlenen, is de erkenning van het feit dat zij aan bepaalde aspecten van hun oorspronkelijke societal culture gebonden blijven. Wat Kymlicka immers via zijn multiculturalisme voor immigranten wil erkennen is niet die oorspronkelijke societal culture als zodanig – het gaat niet om zelfbestuursrechten, maar ‘slechts’ om poly-etnische minderheidsrechten (zie noot 3) – maar wel enkele gewoonten in verband met voedingrestricties, kledij, ontspanning, tradities, praktijken, religie etc. Dat betekent dat Kymlicka wel degelijk een morele rechtvaardiging articuleert teneinde de culturele hersenspoeling tegen te houden. Immigranten zouden niet akkoord gaan met de potentiële assimilatiemachine omdat ze het gevoel zouden hebben dat ze er een ‘ander mens’ door zijn geworden (cf. integriteits- en continuïteitsverlies). Kymlicka pareert de assimilationistische kritiek omdat hij zich heel goed bewust is van het feit dat mensen op etnisch-cultureel niveau fundamenteel gebonden wezens zijn met thick identities. De kritiek die wij op Kymlicka formuleren en in het vervolg van dit artikel uitwerken is niet dat zijn theorie monistische allures zou hebben waarbij etnisch-culturele bindingen op zich niet zouden zijn beschermd, maar wel dat zijn monomane aandacht voor de constitutieve etnisch-culturele bindingen verheelt dat er mogelijk ook andere constitutieve bindingen bestaan die ceteris paribus nopen tot een vergelijkbaar accommoderend beleid.

Een liberale politiek van extimiteit

In navolging van Dworkin formuleert Kymlicka (1989 en 1995) twee structurele kenmerken van het goede leven. Enerzijds moet het leven van binnenuit worden geleefd, dat wil zeggen dat het individu zijn leven vorm moet kunnen geven volgens zijn eigen opvattingen. Anderzijds moeten individuen steeds in staat zijn om hun doeleinden, projecten en bindingen te herevalueren. Dat laatste vloeit voort uit het feit dat mensen feilbaar zijn wanneer het erop aankomt te bepalen wat precies een zinvol leven betekent. Beide kenmerken wijzen op het fundamentele belang van persoonlijke autonomie. Door de nadruk te leggen op het feit dat mensen de vrijheid moeten hebben om de ends te kiezen en te herzien, toont Kymlicka echter aan dat het hem niet zozeer om de autonomie an sich te doen is, maar wel om het belang dat mensen aan bepaalde ends hechten.

‘Liberals aren’t saying that we should have the freedom to select our projects for its own sake, because freedom is the most valuable thing in the world. Rather, it is our projects and tasks that are the most important things in our lives, and it is because they are so important that we should be free to revise and reject them. (…) Freedom of choice, then, isn’t pursued for its own sake, but as a precondition for pursuing those projects and practices that are valued for their own sake’ (Kymlicka 1989: 48).

De ends zijn voor mensen belangrijk, vandaar dat mensen die ends zelf moeten kunnen kiezen en, als ze dat nodig zouden vinden, herzien.

Mensen ervaren sommige ends duidelijk als belangrijker dan andere en het gebeurt dat zij hun eigen (over)leven ondergeschikt maken aan een bepaald end. ‘It is difficult, properly traumatic, for a human animal to accept that his or her life is not just a stupid process of reproduction and pleasureseeking, but that it is in the service of a Truth’ (Žižek 2002: 69-70). Deze ends die mensen er soms toe brengen de eigen overleving op het spel te zetten, zijn wat we ‘extieme’ ends zouden kunnen noemen.[6] Mensen worden erdoor op sleeptouw genomen zonder dat ze altijd precies weten waarom ze er zo aan verknocht zijn. Ze worden er als het ware als een buitenstaander door gecapteerd (extern) en tegelijk voelen ze dat het hun meest persoonlijke kern bepaalt (intiem) en dat ze zichzelf zouden verraden mochten ze er geen gehoor aan geven. Als we aan het bestaan van deze extieme ends geloof hechten, dan betekent dit dat niet alle ends zomaar potentieel herzienbaar zijn en dat er dus wel degelijk een soort hiërarchie van ends bestaat.[7] Kymlicka beweert nergens dat in het leven van een individu alle ends zullen veranderen, hij stelt alleen dat ze in principe kunnen veranderen (ook als dat niet eenvoudig zou blijken te zijn) en vooral dat een beleid mensen in staat moet stellen om hun ends te overdenken en indien gewenst ook te veranderen. Het is perfect mogelijk dat een individu bepaalde ends als onveranderbaar beschouwt (dat lijkt Kymlicka dus niet te ontkennen), alleen moet de overheid een individu altijd zo behandelen dat het zijn ends (indien gewenst) toch kan veranderen.[8]

Het is precies het liberalisme (en bijvoorbeeld niet het communitarisme) dat, via de vrijheid van organisatie, geweten, meningsuiting etc. de meeste ruimte laat voor het feit dat mensen extieme bindingen hebben die ze niet zonder meer kunnen veranderen. Deze vrijheden en grondrechten zijn niet enkel belangrijk omdat mensen moeten kunnen kiezen, maar ook omdat de overheid respect wil opbrengen voor de bindingen die mensen met en door hun opvoeding, socialisatie en cultuur meekrijgen en die hen omwille van een bepaalde psychologische constitutie op een extieme wijze capteren. Godsdienstvrijheid is dus bijvoorbeeld niet (alleen) belangrijk omdat mensen hun godsdienst moeten kunnen ‘kiezen’ (zoals men de smaak van een ijsje kan kiezen), maar ook en wellicht vooral omdat mensen in religieuze aangelegenheden niet kunnen kiezen en zich categorisch aangesproken voelen en zich gebonden weten aan tradities, teksten en praktijken.

De aandacht voor de extieme bindingen zou het liberale denkkader (en met name ook dat van Kymlicka) meer dan nu het geval is moeten doen inzien dat neutrality of justification vaak niet helemaal toereikend is en dat er redenen kunnen zijn om aanvullend ook neutrality of outcome mee in rekening te brengen. Anders gezegd, niet alleen de gronden, maar ook de gevolgen van het beleid moeten in acht worden genomen. Als het individu bijvoorbeeld primair wordt begrepen als een individu dat autonoom in de wereld staat en dus over het vermogen beschikt om zijn ends te herzien, dan maakt het voor een beleid eigenlijk weinig uit of de regels, wetten, praktijken en instituties sommige mensen benadelen in de mate dat zij hun integriteit op het spel moeten zetten. De riposte dat de wet, regel of institutie nu eenmaal altijd sommige mensen meer zal benadelen dan anderen, wordt dan een argument om de gevolgen eigenlijk niet al te ernstig te nemen (zie bijv. Barry 2001). Zolang de onderliggende motivatie voor het beleid neutraal is – zolang een regel bijvoorbeeld niet in het leven werd geroepen om een bepaalde conceptie van het goede leven moedwillig te benadelen – is er weinig aan de hand. De stelling echter dat mensen ook constitutief gebonden kunnen zijn aan een pluriformiteit aan ends en dus over thick identities beschikken, biedt juist een argument om in de rechtvaardiging van een beleid nadrukkelijk rekening te houden met de neutraliteit van de justificaties én consequenties.

Kymlicka lijkt slechts in beperkte mate een politics of extimacy voor te staan. Immers, daar waar zijn liberaal beleidskader lijkt uit te gaan van ‘grondenneutraliteit’ is zijn multiculturalisme nadrukkelijk geënt op ‘grondenneutraliteit’ in combinatie met ‘gevolgenneutraliteit’.[9] Een samenleving, zo geeft Kymlicka aan, kan niet volledig neutraal staan (inzake de outcome van haar beleid) ten opzichte van alle etnisch-culturele identiteiten en daarom moeten die groepen die worden benadeeld op het niveau van de toegang tot de sociale instituten, het spreken van de taal, het verkrijgen van vakantiedagen, het zich herkennen in de symbolen van openbare gebouwen, het zich herkennen in curricula en musea etc. extra worden ondersteund.

‘Government decisions on languages, internal boundaries, public holidays and state symbols unavoidably involve recognizing, accommodating and supporting the needs and identities of particular ethnic and national groups. The state unavoidably promotes certain cultural identities, and thereby disadvantages others. Once we recognize this, we need to rethink the justice of minority rights claims’ (Kymlicka 1995: 108).

Dit is een krachtig argument. Via legio multiculturele accommodaties wordt de samenleving niet alleen rechtvaardiger en neutraler, maar mag ook worden verwacht dat immigranten zich sneller aan deze samenleving zullen binden (Levrau en Loobuyck 2013). Deze logica van benadeling en compensatie is echter ook van toepassing op groepen die niet in etnisch-culturele termen zijn gedefinieerd. Dat Kymlicka dat niet expliciteert, maakt dat hij immigrantengroepen eigenlijk via de poly-etnische rechten bepaalde prerogatieven verleent.[10] Een soortgelijke bezorgdheid over de gevolgen zou Kymlicka eigenlijk ook moeten tonen ten aanzien van andere bindingen. Concreet, als Kymlicka er bijvoorbeeld voor wil zorgen dat etnisch-culturele minderheden halalvoedsel kunnen eten, waarom zou hij dan niet garanderen dat vegetariërs ook een alternatief menu ter beschikking staat?[11] Immers, als de etnisch-culturele diversiteit die via migratie wordt binnengebracht een manier is waarop mensen wensen te leven – bijvoorbeeld volgens de religieuze gebruiken van een bepaalde etnisch-culturele groep – dan wordt het moeilijk aan te geven hoe dit zou verschillen van de manier waarop, bijvoorbeeld, een autochtone groep individuen wenst te leven volgens de principes van het vegetarisme. Wat maakt de binding van de immigrant aan zijn religie anders dan de binding van een ‘autochtoon’ aan een vegetarische levensstijl of subcultuur?[12] Als het constitutieve karakter van de binding aan bepaalde gebruiken en opvattingen een argumentatieve basis is voor Kymlicka’s immigrantenmulticulturalisme, dan moet hij toegeven dat mensen aan velerlei bindingen en manieren van leven kunnen zijn gehecht en dat ze aan elk van die bindingen en lifestyles zelfrespect kunnen ontlenen wanneer de samenleving er positief mee omgaat. Zo is het perfect mogelijk te denken dat de erkenning van het vegetarisme er voor een overtuigd vegetariër toe zal leiden dat hij zich, als een gewenst lid van de samenleving, meer met die samenleving zal associëren.

 Wie het multiculturalisme dus op basis van het erkenningsidioom wil verdedigen (cf. erkenning voor de etnisch-culturele ends waaraan immigranten op een constitutieve wijze zijn gebonden), kan echter niet duidelijk maken waarom het slechts de etnisch-culturele bindingen zouden zijn die moeten worden erkend. Mensen behoren (potentieel) tot velerlei groepen en zij hebben (potentieel) velerlei bindingen waaraan ze verknocht zijn en waar een erkenningsbeleid meer rechtvaardigheid zou kunnen creëren.  

Pluriforme accommodatie

De liberale politiek van extimiteit noopt dus tot een postmulticulturele theorie waarbij etnisch-culturele en religieuze, maar ook seculiere en meer prozaïsche bindingen in aanmerking kunnen komen om te worden geaccommodeerd door difference sensitive policies. Immers, een beleid dat  burgers met gelijke zorg en respect behandelt, moet een beleid zijn dat uitgaat van het feit dat mensen thick identities hebben en precies voor die identities respect kunnen vragen indien zou blijken dat er met deze in de vormgeving van de instituten, regels en wetten onvoldoende rekening werd gehouden. Dat betekent dat een beleid het best kan uitgaan van een inclusieve vorm van neutraliteit die rekening houdt met zowel de gronden als gevolgen. Van regels, praktijken, instituties en wetten mag met andere woorden worden verwacht dat ze voldoende aangepast zijn aan die identiteiten. ‘Laws are meant not just to make coexistence between people with different conceptions of the good possible, they are also meant to make the pursuit of those various conceptions possible, as far as is reasonable’ (Quong 2006: 59). Mensen kunnen zich namelijk altijd miskend voelen en die miskenning, dit onrecht, moet ernstig worden genomen. Precies daarom is er behoefte aan een aantal objectieve criteria aan de hand waarvan claims voor erkenning op objectieve wijze kunnen worden aanvaard of verworpen. Iedereen moet in staat zijn om erkenningsclaims te formuleren en elk van die claims moet tegen de achtergrond van dezelfde criteria worden getoetst.

We noemen kort een aantal criteria die apart en zeker cumulatief behulpzaam kunnen zijn in de beoordeling van de redelijkheid van accommodatie – waarbij redelijkheid niet in de eerste plaats verwijst naar wat er wordt gevraagd, maar wel naar de haalbaarheid van de accommodatie. We hebben hier niet de ruimte om er dieper op in te gaan, maar willen een beeld schetsen van hoe ‘pluriforme accommodatie’ – het concept dat we willen introduceren om duidelijk te maken dat er een veelheid aan claims mogelijk is die moeten worden afgewogen tegen een veelheid van criteria – in de arbeidscontext precies kan worden gedacht.

1) Het liberaal proviso. De liberale bandbreedte vormt een initiële grens. Claims die niet binnen het liberale kader van vrijheid, gelijkheid en respect vallen, kunnen niet geaccommodeerd worden. Dat wil daarom niet zeggen dat er geen minimale concessies kunnen worden gemaakt. Zo kan een contextuele en pragmatische analyse uitmaken of er inderdaad kan overgegaan worden op een accommodatie. Dit roept een reminiscentie op van de justice as evenhandedness benadering van Carens (2000: 13).

‘Now being fair does not mean that every cultural claim and identity will be given equal weight but rather that each will be given appropriate weight under the circumstances within the framework of a commitment to equal respect for all. History matters, numbers matter, the relative importance of the claims to the claimants matters, and so do many other considerations.’

Neem het voorbeeld van een ambtenaar die op grond van zijn geweten homostellen niet wenst te huwen. Het probleem is dan de vraag of een verplichting aan ambtenaren om elke huwelijksvoltrekking bij te wonen (en dus geen seksuele minderheden te discrimineren) moet prevaleren boven het recht op erkenning van hun gewetensbezwaren en geloofsovertuiging. Een contextuele analyse leert dat het in de eerste plaats de overheid is die moet garanderen dat homostellen kunnen huwen. Die garantie wordt geboden door de wet die het burgerlijk huwelijk openstelt voor personen van hetzelfde geslacht. Zolang die garantie er is, doet het er in principe niet zoveel toe dat er onder het stadspersoneel ambtenaars zouden zijn die het er moeilijk mee hebben dat homoseksuelen met elkaar huwen en daarom de huwelijksceremonie verzaken. Als de ambtenaar zich daarentegen actief zou verzetten tegen de wettelijke taken die moeten worden uitgevoerd voor het sluiten van een huwelijk, dan wordt de uitvoering van de wet verhinderd en kan de weigerambtenaar gesanctioneerd worden.[13]   

Stel nu dat er veel weigerambtenaren zijn. In dit geval gaat de wet (dus de principiële mogelijkheid dat homostellen met elkaar huwen) voor op het (individuele) geweten van de ambtenaar. De situatie mag immers nooit van dien aard zijn dat homoseksuelen niet meer zouden kunnen huwen. Van de burgemeester of minister kan dan verwacht worden dat hij tussenkomt door middel van het uitvaardigen van een dienstbevel. In dat geval geldt ‘Lex dura, sed lex’ (de wet is hard, maar het is de wet) en zijn accommodaties dus niet op hun plaats.

2) Het subsidiariteitscriterium en het accommodatie-proviso. Accommodaties en het verlenen van uitzonderingen staan in het teken van substantiële gelijkheid en dat veronderstelt dat men de ongelijkheid niet verplaatst. De accommodatie mag er met andere woorden niet toe leiden dat anderen slechter af zijn. De lasten moeten dus ook na de accommodatie gelijk verspreid blijven. Een weigerambtenaar die alleen maar de (niet-verplichte) ceremonie bij het huwelijk niet wil leiden, die doet op zich niet zoveel verkeerd en zou daarom mogen vervangen worden door een andere ambtenaar, tenzij die collega’s daardoor veel meer werk krijgen en ook hun eigen taken niet langer kunnen uitvoeren.

3) Het functionaliteitscriterium en proportionaliteitscriterium. In de politiek-filosofische literatuur en in nogal wat jurisprudentie worden accommodaties als ‘proportioneel’ gekwalificeerd wanneer zij slechts een ‘minimale beperking van vrijheid’ impliceren en wanneer de ‘balans tussen lusten en lasten’ voldoende in evenwicht blijft. Dat betekent dat wat er wordt geclaimd billijk moet zijn, bijvoorbeeld met betrekking tot de kosten die de werkgever moet maken. Werkgevers mogen niet worden verwacht om het ‘onmogelijke’ te doen. Bovendien moet ook, zoals hoger al aangegeven, de tenuitvoerbrenging van de job steeds gegarandeerd blijven. Het goede functioneren van het personeelslid mag niet worden gecompromitteerd.

Hier kan met name worden verwezen naar de ‘redelijke accommodaties’ die in Noord-Amerika en in Europa (er zijn ook niet-Westerse voorbeelden te geven) worden geïmplementeerd voor andersvalide werknemers. Werkgevers zijn verplicht te accommoderen, maar de kosten mogen niet excessief zijn (Alidadi 2012). Van gelijke strekking zou ook het karakter van de accommodaties voor ‘concepties van het goede leven’ kunnen zijn: verplicht, maar niet excessief wat de kosten betreft en dus billijk wat betreft de verdeling tussen lust en last. De claims en de daaruitvolgende accommodaties mogen tevens het goede functioneren niet beletten. Zo kan bijvoorbeeld worden beargumenteerd dat non-verbale communciatie een wezenlijk aspect is van onderwijs en dat daarom het gezicht van de leerkracht voor de leerlingen steeds goed zichtbaar moet zijn. Dit betekent bijvoorbeeld dat een hoofddoek wel, maar een boerka niet toegelaten is. In dit verband zijn twee uitspraken van het Europees Hof van de Rechten van de Mens veelzeggend.

De eerste zaak betreft Mevrouw Eweida die werd gevraagd om tijdens haar functie aan de balie van British Airways geen zichtbaar kruis rond de hals te dragen (Eweida v British Airways [2010] EWCA Civ 80; [2010] I.C.R. 890). Omdat zij zich daartegen verzette, werd zij gevraagd onbezoldigd thuis te blijven tot British Airways in haar intern reglement opnam dat kruisjes getolereerd werden. Mevrouw Eweida wilde echter financieel vergoed worden voor de periode waarin zij thuis was en dus geen inkomen verwierf. Zij verwees daarbij naar het feit dat moslima’s en sikhs wel aan de balie mochten verschijnen met hoofddoeken en tulbanden (weliswaar steeds in de kleuren van British Airways). In de uitspraak van het Europees Hof werd geargumenteerd dat de vrijheid van religie van Mevrouw Eweida inderdaad niet werd gerespecteerd. Het kruis, zo werd gesteld, bracht het goed functioneren niet in gevaar, noch bracht het schade aan het imago van British Airways, temeer omdat hoofddoeken en tulbanden reeds werden aanvaard. Het betrof uiteindelijk ook ‘maar’ een discreet kruisje dat bovendien ook later door het interne reglement van British Airways zou worden toegelaten.

De tweede zaak is die van Mevrouw Chaplin, een verpleegster die tijdens de uitoefening van haar job een kruis rond rond haar hals wou dragen (Application no. 59842/10). Om redenen die te maken hadden met hygiëne en veiligheid van de patiënten verkreeg zij hiervoor geen toestemming. Volgens het Hof bracht het ziekenhuis neutrale argumenten aan die in de balans meer gewicht horen te krijgen dan het recht op de vrijheid van religie van Mevrouw Chaplin. Dit betekent dat Mevrouw Chaplin geen kruis mocht dragen omwille van wat als het ‘functionaliteitscriterium’ kan worden geduid.

(4) Het criterium van de interpretatieve neutraliteit in relatie met een terughoudende objectieve toetsing. Enerzijds mag iedereen claimen wat hij wil – het is niet aan de overheid om te bepalen wat iemand vanuit zijn religie of conceptie van het goede leven moet doen – maar anderzijds moet er worden nagegaan of er geen sprake is van misbruik. De staat kan dus bijvoorbeeld niet stellen dat de boerka een symbool van onderdrukking is en daarom zou moeten worden verboden. Het is aan het individu om de betekenis van de boerka te bepalen. Tegelijk kan men altijd iets te weten komen over de ernst, het belang en de intensiteit van de claim en wat het voor de persoon zelf betekent. In die zin kan/mag de waarachtigheid, de subjectieve intentie, de betekenis en de ernst van de claim altijd minimaal getoetst worden. Deze ‘terughoudende objectieve en minimale toetsing’ vormt een soort clausule bij de terughoudende interpretatie die kan helpen de potentiële vloedgolf aan accommodaties in te dijken. Het is immers noodzakelijk om toch een zekere afbakening te bieden aan het object dat ter bescherming staat. Immers, als iedereen een aanspraak kan maken op grond van zijn geweten, identiteit, religie of conceptie van het goede leven en als alles volledig wordt gesubjectiveerd, dan wordt het recht op accommodatie van de conceptie van het goede leven een schier onhanteerbaar recht.

Iedereen gelijk voor de wet van het verschil

Een dergelijke postmulticulturele ‘outcome related theory’ waarbij claims via een in concreto analyse en op basis van dezelfde criteria worden getaxeerd, maakt dat er in de praktijk natuurlijk veel erkenningswerk zal moeten worden geleverd. Dit is echter een praktisch en geen fundamenteel bezwaar. Het erkenningswerk kan overigens voor een stuk vermeden worden als men op de claims anticipeert en als men dus a priori vertrekt van inclusieve regels, wetten, instituties en praktijken. Accommodaties zouden dan structureel zijn en niet langer enkel fungeren als correctiemiddelen. Er zullen wellicht nog steeds borderline gevallen bestaan – het constitutieve gehalte van een binding en het fundamentele karakter van een conceptie van het goede leven zijn nu eenmaal geen alles-of-niets kwesties – en ook het argument van de slippery slope zal op de achtergrond altijd wel enige argwaan opwekken en een zekere rem uitoefenen, maar het lijkt ons finaal toch erger om iemand een accommodatie te onthouden waar hij wel recht op had dan om iemand te accommoderen die daar stricto sensu geen recht op had. Het punt is dat uiteindelijk niemand a priori mag worden benadeeld in de manier waarop hij aan de samenleving wil participeren omwille van en ongeacht de aard van zijn constitutieve binding. Door de nivellering van allerhande constitutieve bindingen, kan het ‘etnisch-culturele verschil’ mogelijks zijn beladen karakter verliezen en kan de kwalijke wij/zij coupure overbrugd worden die de multiculturele samenleving thans overschaduwt. Iedereen wordt immers gelijk voor de wet van het verschil. Wat echter nodig is en blijft, is een reasonable balancing as methods of reasoning’ (Bader, Alidadi en Vermeulen 2013: 58) waarbij met name wordt gedacht over wat er concreet nodig is voor een leefbare oplossing die fair en aanvaardbaar is voor alle betrokkenen. Dat veronderstelt, zoals aangegeven, een betrokkenheid op neutraliteit van de justificaties én consequenties.


In dit artikel hebben we onderzocht hoe Kymlicka precies de verhouding tussen ‘autonomie’ en ‘constitutieve bindingen’ begrijpt. We hebben aangetoond dat er – anders dan wat Van Leeuwen daar in een aantal teksten over beweert – wel degelijk een ‘erkenningsargument’ in het werk van Kymlicka aanwezig is dat recht doet aan het interne perspectief van het individu. Dat betekent dat zijn theorie niet zomaar als een liberaal-monistische theorie kan worden geduid. Kymlicka begrijpt heel goed dat mensen op een constitutieve wijze aan allerhande ends kunnen zijn gebonden en dat een beleid daar dan ook rekening mee houdt. Desalniettemin zit er een spanning in zijn egalitair-liberale theorie. Kymlicka erkent de diepe bindingen van migranten door hen poly-etnische minderheidsrechten te verlenen die ervoor zorgen dat bepaalde tradities, gebruiken en manieren van leven die met de societal culture van herkomst worden geassocieerd worden beschermd in de societal culture van aankomst. Die erkenningsgedachte extrapoleert hij echter nauwelijks naar andere bindingen. Enerzijds is hij als liberaal grote voorstander van diversiteit. Over de ends zegt hij bijvoorbeeld dat ze de the most imporant things in our lives zijn (Kymlicka 1989: 48) en precies daarom voor het beleid een aandachtspunt moeten zijn voor zover elk individu steeds de vrijheid moet worden gegarandeerd om volgens die ends het leven vorm te geven én van end te veranderen mocht hij dat wensen. Anderzijds lijkt hij een buitengewoon belang te hechten aan de binding die mensen ervaren met de societal culture en lijkt het erop dat hij vertrekt van een soort etnisch-culturele hegemonie waarbij de multiculturele beschermparaplu wordt opengeklapt voor immigrantengroepen en dat terwijl andere groepen en bindingen er in zijn theorie eigenlijk betrekkelijk bekaaid vanaf komen. We hebben aangegeven dat een beleid best volop diversiteit en pluralisme kan bevorderen en dat een diversiteitstheorie dat ook expliciet aangeeft omdat mensen zich nu eenmaal aan eender welke binding of manier van leven constitutief gehecht kunnen voelen. Bindingen moeten daarom, meer nog dan het geval is bij Kymlicka, zowel in theorie als in praktijk op voet van gelijkheid worden behandeld. Via een pleidooi voor pluriforme accommodatie hebben we daartoe een aanzet geformuleerd.

In defence of utopia

Published five hundred years ago in 1516, Thomas More’s Utopia would become the founding text of the utopian tradition. Ever since, a scholarly debate has ensued on whether Utopia should be read as satire, or as a detailed blueprint for a new society. The discussion has implications that stretch far beyond the text itself. More’s Utopia functions as a platform from which to gauge the merits of utopian thought and intellectual engagement as such. Does utopianism necessarily lead to violence and totalitarianism? Do utopian ideas need to end ‘in a miserable fit of the blues’, as Marx once famously wrote? Is it possible to transform society on the basis of ideas? What role can intellectuals play in politics? Following in the footsteps of anti-utopian thinkers such as Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin and John Gray, the influential Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis has formulated forceful answers to these questions. In his view, More’s Utopia has carved a path that subsequent generations of utopian thinkers have been forced to follow, often against their will; a path that has inexorably lead to the modern totalitarian regimes of Stalin, Mao and the Khmer Rouge. The dismissal of societal alternatives, as theorized by Achterhuis, became a defining feature of the post-political culture in the Netherlands after 1989, the year that Wim Kok, leader of the social democrat party (PvdA), renounced its ‘striving towards the Grand Aim’. Though there is no final resolution to be reached on the interpretation of More’s Utopia – which remains an enigmatic book – there are convincing arguments to approach it as a semi-serious, semi-satirical text in the genre of serio ludere. In this tradition, utopia should be understood not as a blueprint to be implemented in its detailed totality, but an unstable and unrealizable image of the future that serves to critique the present, while having some fun in the process, too.

‘Utopia is on the horizon. When I walk two steps, it takes two steps back; I walk another ten steps, and it recedes ten steps further. As much as I may walk, I will never reach it. So what is utopia for? The point is this, to keep on walking.’

Eduardo Galeano, Walking Words

 ‘If we are to believe the discourse of the wise, our fin de siècle is the finally conquered age of realism. We have buried Marxism and swept aside all utopias. We have even buried the thing that made them possible: the belief that time carried a meaning and a promise […] The thinkers who have made it their specialty to remind us without respite of the century’s horrors also explain to us relentlessly that they all stem from one fundamental crime. The crime is to have believed that history had a meaning and that it fell to the world’s peoples to realize it.’

Jacques Rancière, Chronicles of Consensual Times

The intellectual debate on utopian thought has long been dominated by a series of scholars – such as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, John Gray, Hans Achterhuis – who have described utopianism as a one-way ticket to totalitarianism. The classic case against utopianism has been made by the liberal philosopher Karl Popper. As explained in his famous The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), and more at length in The Poverty of Historicism (1957/1944) and Utopia and Violence (1963), Karl Popper sees utopianism as an approach whereby one must first

‘determine the ultimate political aim, or the Ideal State, before taking any practical action. Only when this ultimate aim is determined, in rough outline at least, only when we are in possession of something like a blueprint of the society at which we aim, only then can we begin to consider the best ways and means for its realization, and to draw up a plan for political action.’ (Popper 1945: 167). \

Another defining characteristic of utopianism is its holism: ‘the desire to build a world which is not only a little better and more rational than ours, but which is free from all its ugliness: not a crazy quilt, and old garment badly patched, but an entirely new gown, a really beautiful world.’ (Popper 1945: 174). This approach, called ‘Utopian engineering’ by Popper, necessarily demands a ‘strong centralized rule of the few’ and is therefore ‘likely to lead to dictatorship’ (Popper 1945: 169). Since there is no rational or scientific way to determine what the ideal is that society should move towards, the differences of opinion on these matters take on the character of religious disputes, on which no compromise is possible. ‘Any difference of opinion between Utopian engineers must therefore lead, in the absence of rational methods, to the use of power instead of reason, i.e. to violence.’ (Popper 1945: 171). As an alternative, Popper proposed piecemeal engineering – small scale experiments, trial and error – of politics as a condition for the development of an ‘open society’. Unlike the Utopian engineer, the piecemeal engineer does not strive towards the establishment of a future ideal; his or her concerns lie wholly in the present.

Popper’s critique of utopian thought, and his reduction of politics to scientific rationalism in the here and now, provided the philosophical basis for the turn towards the technocracy of the post-political era, culminating in Fukuyama’s claim of the ‘end of history’. In the Netherlands, the rejection of utopian thought – inspired by Popper – was a key element in the development of the Dutch Third Way and the early shift of Dutch social democracy towards a centrist, technocratic and pragmatic politics. That era was inaugurated in 1989 by Wim Kok, the leader of the social democrat party (PvdA), who distanced himself from the ‘striving towards the Grand Aim’. With remarkable similitude to Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum – There Is No Alternative (TINA) – Kok stated: ‘We no longer speak of a Vision or The Alternative of the PvdA. […] There is no alternative for the societal constellation we have now and therefore it’s no use to aim for that’ (cited in Marijnissen 2009: 36). This shift was motivated by a critique of utopian thought.

One year before, in 1988, Paul Kalma, the soon-to-be director of the scientific bureau of the Dutch social democrat party, had written a searing indictment of socialist ideology. In the ground-breaking essay Socialisme op Sterk Water (Socialism in Formaldehyde), Kalma pleaded for a definite departure from traditional socialist ideology, understood as the utopian desire for radical transformation of society. Following Popper’s argument, social democracy had to become an enemy of utopia and defend the ‘open society’ against the ‘closed society’ that utopian thought aimed for. (Ironically, for Kalma the ‘closed society’ is based on the idea of an end-stage of history, a harmonious society where all conflict has disappeared; it is eerily similar to the end-of-history thesis as developed by Fukuyama.) A ‘minimal socialism’ should arise without the pretention of being able to develop or realise ‘a general vision of man and society’ (Kalma 1988: 21). In 1995, Wim Kok held his famous Den Uyl lecture, where he spoke of the ‘liberating experience of shedding the ideological feathers’ (Kok 1995). Kok cited Kalma lengthily and approvingly: ‘A true renewal of the PvdA starts with a definite departure from socialist ideology; with a definite severing of the ideological ties with other descendents of the traditional socialist movement.’ (Kok 1995). Only to add that in 1995, the severing of ties had been as good as completed.

As is often the case, the most extensive theoretical elaboration of this shift only came after the fact. At the end of the 1990’s Hans Achterhuis developed a still widely acclaimed critique of utopian thought, inspired by the ideas of Popper. The work of Achterhuis thus became the main intellectual expression of the anti-utopian turn in Dutch politics.[1] According to Achterhuis ‘utopian thought has, from the very beginning, tried to prevent the emergence of an open society, in refined ways.’ (Achterhuis 1998: 117).

I believe that statement to be false. In fact, there is much to be said for the opposite argument: that the open society has been inaugurated by utopian thought. The democratic revolutions in the U.S., in France and the Netherlands were inspired by the republican ideals as articulated in the work of More and Rousseau (Rutjes 2012, Venturi 1971).

Internationally, thinkers such as Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton and Russel Jacoby have proposed a reassessment of utopian thought. While utopia as a blueprint is generally seen as problematic by these authors, the reappraisal concerns the iconoclastic form of utopian thought that primarily functions as a critique of the status quo instead of a master plan for the future. In the words of Eagleton: ‘Bad Utopia persuades us to desire the unfeasible, and so, like the neurotic, to fall ill of longing, whereas the only authentic image of the future is, in the end, the failure of the present.’ (Eagleton 2000, p34). Similarly, in the Netherlands, a reassessment of utopian thought is underway. Willem Schinkel writes of ‘a need to hold on to a utopian horizon, without ever making the dangerous claim of realising utopia.’ (Schinkel 2012: 24). Laeyendecker (2013: 423-431) has written an impressive encyclopaedic defence of utopia as a form of societal critique. And the journalist Rutger Bregman (2014: 386) argues for ‘utopian iconoclasm’.

Motivated by a similar spirit as the defenders of iconoclastic utopianism mentioned above, I aim to show that the critique of utopian thought as developed by Hans Achterhuis is based on a deterministic and ultimately untenable interpretation of the utopian tradition, and a flawed and reductive conception of utopia as blueprint. What follows is a critical revision of the critique of utopian thought popularized by Achterhuis, leading us all the way back to the foundational text of the utopian tradition: Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516. On closer examination, this foundational text turns out be much more in keeping with the idea of utopia as critique, than that of utopia as a complete blueprint.

I. Utopia on Trial

The philosopher Hans Achterhuis, a long-time holder of the Dutch honorary title ‘Thinker of the Fatherland’, is one of the most widely read political thinkers of the Netherlands. In many ways, his biography is that of an entire generation. After receiving a doctoral degree in theology in 1967, Achterhuis worked for the global deaconate, the international department of the Dutch Reformed Church, where he became radicalised and left after a conflict with the leadership. As for many of his generation, leftist politics was not only a break, but also a secular continuation of his previous beliefs. As a young radical, he wrote books on Apartheid in South Africa (The Revolution Postponed, 1973) and the ideas of anti-colonial figures such as Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich and Mao Tse-Toeng (Philosophers of the Third World, 1975). Experiencing a crisis of leftist faith, from the late seventies onwards Achterhuis developed into the single most prominent intellectual critic of the social movements of the sixties and seventies. Combining leftist critiques of the state (Foucault) and philosophical conservatism, in 1979 he published his now classic critique of social work as an institution that fosters dependency (The Market of Welfare and Happiness, 1979). But the repudiation of his former leftist beliefs is most poignantly expressed in his critique of utopian thought, which has been a central theme in his intellectual career. It led to books such as De Erfenis van de Utopie (The Legacy of Utopia, 1998), Utopie (Utopia, 2006) and finally De Utopie van de Vrije Markt (The Utopia of the Free Market, 2010), which portrays neoliberalism as another utopian belief system that Achterhuis, seduced by its persuasive power, had overlooked in his earlier work.

In De Erfenis van de Utopie, his most extensive study of utopian thought, Achterhuis defines utopian thought by way of three family traits:

  1. Social engineering, the idea that human nature and the natural world can be rationally given (a new) shape and controlled.
  2. The idea of community, implying the subservience of the individual to society.
  3. Holism or totality of the societal experiment. There is a blueprint or master-plan with a detailed image of a future society: the whole of society needs to be configured and controlled, implying a total break with the past.

On the basis of this holism – taken from Karl Popper – Achterhuis objects to interpretations of utopian thought that seek to ‘take away useful elements’ or ‘inspiring ideas’. One either has to reject utopian thought in its entirety, or accept it as a whole, in its uttermost detail, with all of its troubling ingredients. According to Achterhuis, ‘the utopians explicitly oppose, starting with More, the reformism that seeks to improve certain elements or apply loose ideas. Partial improvements are for the right-minded utopian out of the question.’ (1998: 19).

Next to these three characteristics, More’s Utopia itself is the central foundation stone on which the critique of utopia rests, which Achterhuis seeks to develop in De Erfenis van de Utopie. The analysis departs from the ‘simple fact that both the concept as the phenomenon ‘utopia’ saw light of day in 1516’ (14), when More’s Utopia was published. ‘Almost all later developments and problems of utopian thought are present here, in condensed form’ (16). ‘Who is unfamiliar with these sources,’ Achterhuis goes on to state, whoever ‘ignores or denies their existence, does not speak of utopia, but merely their own fantasies and projections.’ (16). More’s Utopia is ‘decisive’ (19) for his perspective on utopianism. ‘In this book More has thought through utopian discourse to its logical conclusions.’ (32).

Here it becomes necessary to present some basic information on the content of More’s Utopia. It consists of two parts. In Book I, More introduces himself and his (really existing) friend Peter Giles and recounts his first acquaintance with the (fictitious) traveller Raphael Hythloday. What follows is a description of the discussions they have on how society could best be governed and whether intellectuals (in this case: humanist scholars) can fruitfully engage with politics, as advisors to rulers. At the end of the discussions in Book I, Raphael proposes to tell More and his companion Giles of his experiences on the island Utopia. The second book is the detailed exposition of the nature and customs of Utopian society, as told by Raphael to More and Giles. Naturally, the narrator Raphael Hythloday is a literary device, a fictitious figure employed by More to present certain ideas – which were deemed quite radical at the time – without having to take responsibility for them.

The island of Utopia that Hythloday describes in Book II is in some aspects a very desirable place, certainly when compared to sixteenth-century Europe. In Utopia, socio-economic equality is the norm, since there is no private property. Nobody goes hungry and there is no homelessness. Utopians have a six-hour working day and everybody gets to do the job they like most. There are limited forms of democracy: if a tyrant takes control of political power, the Utopians can dispose of him. There is universal education and healthcare. And there is a policy of religious tolerance. On the other hand, Utopian society is highly restrictive of personal freedom. Children can be transferred from one family to another, or one location to another, to maintain optimum population levels. Leisure is strictly regulated, and people are not allowed to amuse themselves in wine bars, alehouses or brothels. Utopia also features slaves, who take care of the dirty jobs no one is willing to do. Free citizens of Utopia can be condemned to slavery if they disobey the rules. What’s more, each family is led and controlled by an elderly patriarch, and women are supposed to serve their men. Also, Utopians feel entitled to colonize foreign lands that are not cultivated and to violently subdue its indigenous population if necessary.

In some aspects – slavery, patriarchy, and colonial violence – Utopia is not unlike sixteenth-century Europe. In other aspects, Utopia anticipates some of the accomplishments of modern welfare states. And again in further aspects, the highly organized and omnipresent nature of the state in Utopia reminds us of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. Here the much-debated question arises as to whether More himself saw Utopia as an ideal society. All in all, More’s Utopia is a complex text whose meaning is not immediately transparent to the reader.

The discussions in Book I are generally perceived as key to understanding what More sought to achieve with Book II, Raphael’s description of the nature and customs of Utopia. Likewise, Achterhuis bases his interpretation of Utopia on an analysis of a dialogue in Book I, where More argues for a politics of the lesser evil. The good life as such is unachievable, the character More says to Hythloday. It will never be ideal, as long as humanity isn’t ideal. Raphael Hythloday then responds by saying that humanity can be improved, as is shown by the island Utopia, which exists in reality. For Achterhuis, this is the single most important proof that in the utopian tradition, utopia is not some unattainable idea, ‘it is more than a Platonic idea for the philosopher to consider’ (50). Utopia needs to be taken literally, as a blueprint for a new society, intended to be implemented in its detailed entirety: ‘More’s Utopia shows that utopia is feasible in reality, and Raphael’s answer to More has been so convincing to its readers that they immediately set out to realize it in uttermost detail.’ (68) [2].

As Achterhuis reluctantly acknowledges, his interpretation is somewhat complicated by the fact that More distances himself at various points in the text from Raphael’s description of Utopia. First of all by using the word utopia itself: the term is an invention of Thomas More, a combination of the Greek οὐ (‘not’) and τόπος (‘place’) meaning ‘no place’. It’s a play of words, a pun on the word eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ (‘good’ or ‘well’) and τόπος (‘place’), which means ‘good place’. The pronunciation of the two words is similar, leading to confusion, which was undoubtedly More’s intention. Secondly, the name More has chosen for his narrator is Raphael Hythloday. The surname is derived from the Greek word Huthlos, used frequently by Plato, and the name translates as peddler of nonsense or idle talk. His Christian name, Raphael, stems from the Archangel Raphael who gives sight to the blind and guides the lost. Thomas More’s Utopia then, is the story of a non-existing place, told by a fictional narrator whose unreliability is implied by his name. Nonetheless, Utopia is not merely a refined prank, a private joke shared amongst the sixteenth-century humanist scholars familiar with the Greek language that More used to hide his jokes in. As the name Raphael suggests, the reader is guided somewhere and vision is imparted to the blind.

What then, is More trying to tell us? In the introduction, More suggests to the reader how to approach the stories told by Raphael Hythloday: ‘While he told us many ill-considered usages in these newfound nations, he also described quite a few other customs from which our own cities, nations, races and kingdoms might take lessons in order to correct their errors.’ (Logan & Adams 1989: 12). In the concluding passage of Book II, More gives another final clue to his readers. Describing the laws and customs of Utopians as ‘really absurd’, More concludes: ‘while I can hardly agree with everything he [Hythloday] said (though he is a man of unquestionable learning and enormous experience of human affairs), yet I freely confess that in the Utopian commonwealth there are very many features that in our own society I would wish rather than expect to see.’ (Logan & Adams 1989: 107).

Here Thomas More suggests an approach to Utopia that Hans Achterhuis has explicitly rejected (by referring to More) namely ‘the reformism that seeks to improve certain elements or apply loose ideas’. The way Achterhuis seeks to circumvent this problem is by separating the text from its author, and by attributing the text with an agency of its own:

‘For me the greatness and genius of More, lie in the unrelenting logic with which he systematically explores the reality of Utopia. That he, in reality continuously distances himself from it, by means of irony or the posing of critical questions to Hythloday, the narrator of the story, is of great importance for judging his personality. The rigorous logic of the utopian system that would come to captivate many after More, is not affected by it.’ (Achterhuis 1998: 34).

The text, in other words, escapes the control of its author. Achterhuis defends this peculiar perspective on the analysis of texts by taking recourse to a rather eccentric interpretation of Foucault’s discourse theory. According to Achterhuis, discourse theory implies that ‘individual motives and intentions are not the deciding factor, when looking at the material effects of a text’ (35). While that is a commonly accepted insight of the history of ideas, Achterhuis gives it a particular deterministic twist. When people are born, he states, they enter into an existing discursive order, which is already present before their birth, and will continue to exist after their death. Similarly, philosophers have no choice but to attach themselves to – and immerse themselves in – existing discourses, they are always preceded by a nameless voice, in whose narrative they enmesh themselves, in order to continue its path. This passage by Achterhuis is a reference to Foucault’s famous opening in The Discourse on Language:

‘I would have preferred to be enveloped in words, borne away beyond all possible beginnings. At the moment of speaking, I would like to have perceived a nameless voice, long preceding me, leaving me merely to enmesh myself in it, taking up its cadence, and to lodge myself, when no one was looking, in its interstices as if it had paused an instant, in suspense, to beckon me. There would have been no beginnings: instead, speech would proceed from me, while I stood in its path – a slender gap – the point of its possible disappearance.’ (1972: 215).

In these elegant first lines, Foucault expresses the scholar’s desire to give himself up to discourse. For the people who read beyond the first page, it becomes quite clear that Foucault refers to a personal desire and not a premise that follows from his discourse theory. In fact, the very opposite is the case: Foucault presents his discourse theory as an attempt to break away from the seduction of passive immersion, leading to an active awareness of how institutions shape and regulate discourse:

‘Inclination speaks out: “I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final; I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open, with others responding to my expectations and truth emerging, one by one. All I want is to allow myself to be borne along, within it, and by it, a happy wreck.” Institutions reply: “But you have nothing to fear from launching out; we’re here to show you discourse is within the established order of things, that we’ve waited a long time for its arrival, that a place has been set aside for it – a place which both honours and disarms it; and if it should happen to have a certain power, then it is we, and we alone, who give it that power.’’’ (Foucault 1972: 215-216).

Achterhuis, however, assumes the dominance of the text over its authors as the epistemological implication of Foucault’s philosophy. It means that once a certain discourse has been given form by a ground-breaking author, subsequent generations can only enmesh themselves in it and continue its course. Likewise, the authors in the utopian tradition ‘cannot escape from certain conclusions that More already made’ (1998: 35) in his foundational text. Using Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblances, Achterhuis adds to this determinism by stating that in the utopian tradition discourses that have some of the family traits discussed above, tend towards having them all in the end: ‘one aspect of utopian discourse almost inevitably calls into being the other’ (35). In other words: the all-encompassing totalitarian logic that Achterhuis identifies in More is an inescapable aspect of all utopian discourse that follows. Even if subsequent authors have assumed it possible ‘to refrain from some of these implications’, they will nonetheless manifest themselves ‘uncontrolled and undesired behind their backs’ (35).

In so doing, Achterhuis manages to invent a remarkable brand of discursive determinism, with which he (unwittingly) approaches Hegel’s idealism.[3] In Hegel’s philosophy everything revolves around the idea, human minds are its vehicle and history is the development of the idea, working out its own rational purposes in human consciousness. Similarly, for Achterhuis, there is the utopian logic, human minds are its often unknowing or unwilling vehicle, and history is the unfolding of the utopian logic. In both cases, providence is at work.

Starting with More, all subsequent utopian thinkers are considered to be tragic wrecks in the utopian stream, whose current inescapably leads them towards totalitarianism, even if some of the passengers of said wrecks are – desperately – paddling in the opposite direction:

‘Maybe the utopian logic is so powerful that one cannot independently give it the desired direction. Maybe it goes its own direction, behind the backs of those that think they can meddle in it unpunished, a direction that is opposed to their own desires and ideals. Many disappointments and failures of benevolent people inspired by utopia, in both really existing socialism and capitalist societies, could in this way better be explained and understood.’ (14).

Like the speech that is to emanate from the vessel that is Foucault, it is the ‘immanent logic of utopia’ that speaks through authors such as Sartre, Marx, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Habermas, Bloch and Brecht, despite their good intentions and highest ideals.[4] Or one could say, because of these high ideals: in the utopian tradition, ‘the all-important end justifies the means, resulting in violence, and the hardening of economic and gender relations’ (21). Any appeal for a radically different society – such as the Paris 1968 slogan ‘be realistic demand the impossible’ – is interpreted by Achterhuis (25) as a call to violence. The immanent (totalitarian) logic of utopia, according to Achterhuis, is the result of the hidden will-to-power of utopian thinkers, a desire they themselves are not even aware of. What follows is an indictment of an entire ‘generation of western intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century’ who were not aware of their own hidden will-to-power. After which Achterhuis proceeds to decry ‘the mass foolishness’ (150) of the Dutch sixties and seventies. The spirit of that time, Achterhuis claims, came to display the utopian logic: ‘The dominant intellectual climate of the seventies can without doubt be considered utopian’ (151). In other words, tending to totalitarianism. To argue his case, Achterhuis refers to a book by a German theologian who compares Mao and Marx with Christ, an English publication that glorifies Mao’s China and the writings of Marcuse. None of which seems to validate his claim of a dominant utopian Dutch intellectual climate. The most important intellectual figure on the Left was without doubt Den Uyl, who was opposed to utopian blueprints. And what is often seen as the most remarkable aspect of the New Left current within the Dutch social democrat party (PvdA) was its reformism and anti-intellectualism (Blokland 2005: 296).

This deterministic reading of texts is compounded by a second eccentric inference that Achterhuis makes from discourse theory, namely the collapse of the distinction between theory and practice. ‘Because reality is constructed in language, texts can have an inescapable and even deadly effect.’ (1998: 33). He cites Heinrich Heine to the effect that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was ‘the sword with which European deism was decapitated’ and the work of Rousseau is ‘the bloodstained weapon that in the hands of Robespierre had destroyed the old regime’ (33). Achterhuis writes of ‘acts that are irresistibly invoked by certain discourses’, and consequently in utopian discourse ‘words and acts are hard to separate’ (36). It leads Achterhuis (132) to blame a sentence in Rousseau’s Emile for the wholesale destruction of the capital of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. In fact, Achterhuis quotes Rousseau spectacularly out of context.[5] And it leads Achterhuis to portray Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as the supposed cause of the rise of neoliberalism, ending in the global financial crisis. A hyperbolic claim rightly debunked by Zuidhof (2012: 86) as ‘historically highly implausible’.

Of course, no intellectual would want to dispute that ideas have an effect on practice. If not, what would be the point of formulating and spreading one’s ideas? But an ‘inescapable’ and ‘irresistible’ effect? That seems to be overdoing it a bit. Why is Achterhuis making these rather grandiose claims for the efficacy of theory? The most convincing answer is that it appears to further his argument. Whether intended or not, the conflation of theory and practice serves to tie the entire tradition of utopian thought irrevocably to modern totalitarian practice.

It may come as no surprise that in reality these historical phenomena are more complex than the approach of Achterhuis allows for. A case in point is the example of the French Revolution, considered by Achterhuis to be the first eruption of the modern totalitarian logic. It is questionable whether the utopian ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his later adherent Abbé Sieyès led to the Terror, as Achterhuis claims through a rather disgraceful misreading of Rousseau, whose formulation of the general will supposedly contains a ‘cleansing logic’ (130-131). In reality, the political theory of both Rousseau and Sieyès maintained that sovereign power needed to be bound by important preconditions, such as the rule of law. The violence of the French Revolution is often seen as a much more pragmatic affair, stemming from a context of immanent war and the threat of counterrevolution.[6] Achterhuis however, follows Hannah Arendt’s controversial account of Rousseau and the French Revolution, which presents Rousseau’s theory of the general will as the inspiration and cause for the Terror of the Jacobin regime. Arendt’s description of French revolutionary history has come under heavy criticism from both political theorists and historians[7]. As Scheuermann argues in a particularly enlightening critique: ‘Arendt believes that we can ignore Rousseau’s own adamant insistence in his crucial discussion of The Limits of Sovereign Power, that political power is only legitimate when exercised in accordance with the ideal of the rule of law. Nor, it seems, do we need to take Rousseau’s detailed description of the proper presuppositions of legitimate republican government – modest size, and a substantial degree of social and economic equality, for example – very seriously. For Rousseau, such preconditions represent pivotal limitations on the absoluteness of the general will.’ (Scheuermann 1997: 152-153, italics in original). Scheuermann concludes: ‘We need to distinguish between the theory and practice of the French Revolution. Simply to assume an underlying affinity between these events and the core of the theoretical legacy of the French Revolution represents sloppy intellectual and political history.’ (Scheuermann 1997: 141).

Yet this is exactly what Achterhuis does, he simply assumes an underlying affinity: the inescapable flow of utopian discourse bearing down on us from the sixteenth century serves to bind it all together – even if Achterhuis admits that Rousseau’s writing cannot be strictly defined as utopian, ‘according to my definition’ (1998: 125). Seeing no need to change his definition, Achterhuis goes on to qualify Rousseau’s work as utopian just the same. Moreover, if there is no such thing as a distinction between theory and practice, if texts have a direct effect on reality, then Rousseau must be accountable for providing the ‘bloodstained weapon’ to Robespierre – his theory of the general will. One could demur and interject that Rousseau saw only smaller communities as appropriate for the application of his ideas as formulated in The Social Contract. But then Achterhuis would reply that the individual motives and intentions of the author are not the deciding factor when looking at the material effects of a text, since that would be ‘idealism’. Relying on his remarkable interpretation of discourse theory, Achterhuis claims that it ‘makes no sense to hold Rousseau responsible for the posterior effects’ of the ideas he has let loose on the world (131). Even though this is precisely what Achterhuis seems to do, by mentioning a few sentences later that Rousseau’s influence on the French Revolution was ‘immense’, and that ‘the first laboratory for the ideas of Rousseau was the Jacobin regime of Robespierre’ (131), and by erroneously stating – in the footsteps of Hannah Arendt – that Rousseau rejected negative freedoms and the division of powers in the name of the unitary and all-powerful general will (129)[8]. Even if Achterhuis’ interpretation of Rousseau’s general will as a ‘utopian cleansing logic’ (128, 130-131) is dramatically incorrect, still one wonders, why should Rousseau not be held responsible for being an intellectual arms-dealer of sorts and for formulating an alleged ‘cleansing logic’?

A similarly confounded reading is offered of the work of Marx and Engels. Of course the problem here is that Marx famously criticized utopian thought and expressed his refusal to ‘write recipes for the cook-shops of the future’. (Achterhuis mistranslates this to Dutch as ‘looking in the cooking pots of the future’, which poses an interesting image of Marx to entertain.) A remarkable solution to this problem is presented:

‘Paradoxically, the neglect of the demand for a concrete description of a new society would, behind their backs, come to plague Marx and Engels. The insistence on details, an inescapable aspect of the utopian logic, only came to the fore after the socialist revolution had taken place. It does not appear in the texts, but in the reality in which the new rulers in their all-embracing plans, tried to arrange the smallest details. Again it shows how brilliant and exhaustive the exploration of the realm of utopia is, that More performs in Utopia. Who thinks they can easily withdraw themselves from certain aspects of the utopian logic revealed by him, is generally deceiving themselves.’ (69).

So in the end, it doesn’t really matter if an author presents a detailed utopian blueprint or not. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The totalitarian nightmare will always catch up with those that dare to dream of a different society. Achterhuis has developed a critique of utopia that takes the form of a slippery-slope argument: any form of utopian thought that has some of the family traits of utopian thought, will – inescapably – come to have them all and will – irresistibly – lead to totalitarian outcomes.

In summary, the critique of utopia that Achterhuis has developed is based on a curious discursive determinism that consists of three core assumptions, all supposedly derived from Thomas More’s Utopia. Firstly, an all-or-nothing approach to utopian thought. Achterhuis rejects the idea that utopia could serve as an unattainable ideal, an inspiration to guide action. On the contrary, he maintains there is a single, unitary utopian tradition that departs from the idea that utopia is realizable. Utopia is a detailed blueprint that must be implemented in its entirety: the utopian tradition rejects the reformism that improves elements of society or applies loose ideas. Secondly, starting from More, all utopian texts, even those that stipulate clear limitations on sovereign power, even those that do not provide a detailed blueprint of a future society, inescapably lead to totalitarianism, due to ‘the immanent utopian logic’ that is stronger than the good intentions and high ideals of the utopian authors. An added benefit here is that one doesn’t need to properly analyse the writings of utopian thinkers, since their intentions do not really matter[9]. Thirdly, texts can have a direct – inescapable and irresistible – effect on social reality. The advantage of this last assumption is that there is no need to get deep down into the messy realm of historical reality and political practice, or to address the even more difficult question of ascertaining causality and attributing blame. One merely assumes an underlying affinity and pardons all participants in the process as naïve, well-meaning victims of an ephemeral utopian logic. As a scholarly discipline, the history of ideas seems to have never had it so easy. Here, analytical rigour seems to have been sacrificed for the purpose of political propaganda.[10]

Thus far we have looked at the attempt of Achterhuis to develop the construct of a unitary utopian tradition, inherently directed towards violence and totalitarianism; a notion that he subsequently employs to indict utopian thinkers and the Dutch progressive movements of the sixties and seventies. We have already seen that the structure of the argument itself is rather shaky. Instead of a solid set of analyses of primary texts, it consists of a series of references to controversial interpretations of More, Rousseau and Marx[11]. These are then joined together by the superglue of discursive determinism, which relies on an eccentric understanding of Foucault’s discourse theory. This already unstable construct rests on one, all-important building block: the interpretation of Thomas More’s Utopia. If we were to extract this particular element, the entire edifice of his already rickety argument would come crashing down.

II. An open reading of Utopia

Let’s return to the discussions in Book I of More’s Utopia for a moment. As mentioned earlier, in this section More introduces himself and his friend Peter Giles, and describes his encounter with an unknown figure, Raphael Hythloday, whom we know to be both a guide to the blind and a nonsense peddler, and who is introduced as follows: ‘a stranger, a man of quite advanced years; with a sunburned face, a long beard, and a cloak hanging loosely from his shoulders; from his face and dress, I took him to be a ship’s captain.’ (Logan & Adams 1989: 9).

As Giles introduces Raphael he explains to More that his first impression is incorrect, Raphael is not a ship’s captain: ‘you’re far off the mark’, Giles tells More, ‘for his sailing has not been like that of Palinerus, but more that of Ulysses, or rather of Plato.’[12] Giles proceeds to describe Raphael as a humanist scholar, proficient in Latin and Greek, whose main interest is philosophy, and who has joined Amerigo Vespucci in his explorations of the New World to return with a wealth of knowledge concerning distant lands. Thus, from the very beginning it is made clear to the reader that we are embarking on philosophical travels, instead of merely material ones. Raphael Hythloday then engages in thoughtful discussion with Giles and More, concerning ‘the faulty arrangements both in that hemisphere and in this’ and the ‘wiser provisions’ that can be derived from his experience (12). Impressed with his intelligence, Giles and More encourage Raphael ‘to enter some king’s service’, to make sure his knowledge is put to good use. Raphael responds by saying that involvement with politics would bring nothing, since nobody is prepared to listen to new ideas. An extensive discussion on intellectual engagement with politics ensues.

Involvement in politics is of no use, Raphael concludes. Europeans are resistant to new ideas. Princes are deaf to philosophy and more concerned with making war than hearing ideals for peace. And courts are filled with men who admire only their own ideas and who are envious of others. More concurs: ‘When your listeners are already prepossessed against you and firmly convinced of opposite opinions, how can you win over their minds with such out-of-the-way speeches?’ (34). Since there is no room for ‘academic philosophy’ in the councils of kings, More proposes Raphael an alternative approach:

‘[T]here is another philosophy, better suited for the role of a citizen, that takes its cue, adapts itself to the drama in hand and acts its part neatly and appropriately. This is the philosophy for you to use. Otherwise, when a comedy of Plautus is being played, and the household slaves are cracking trivial jokes together, you come onstage in the garb of a philosopher and repeat Seneca’s speech to Nero from the Octavia. Wouldn’t it be better to take a silent role than to say something inappropriate and thus turn the play into a tragicomedy? You pervert a play and ruin it when you add irrelevant speeches, even if they are better than the play itself. So go through with the drama as best you can, and don’t spoil it all just because you happen to think of a play by someone else that might be more elegant.’ (35).

As Logan and Adams explain, the comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus involve ‘low intrigue’. The tragedy Octavia, in contrast, is ‘full of high seriousness’ and in the speech that More alludes to, the Roman philosopher ‘Seneca lectures Nero on the abuses of power’ (35n80). In other words, if the play of politics is performed as a light comedy, why ruin it by playing one’s part as if it were a serious tragedy?

This enigmatic paragraph is the key passage of Book I. More continues by describing his alternative as an ‘indirect approach’, oriented towards diminishing harm: ‘what you cannot turn to good, you may at least make as little bad as possible. For it is impossible to make everything good unless all men are good, and that I don’t expect to see for quite a few years yet.’ (35). Raphael responds by saying that he doesn’t understand what More means. For the reader it is equally unclear what is intended here.

Raphael then explains why private property is at the base of society’s troubles, and that he does not understand how to convince people of that through an ‘indirect approach’. Maybe he should just follow the advice of Plato, when he described the reaction of wise men faced with crowds of people out in the streets, being rained upon. Since the wise men cannot persuade the people to go inside and get dry, because the wise men know they will only get themselves wet as well if they go out and try, they stay indoors, content to keep at least themselves dry. More objects to Raphael’s ideas concerning the abolition of private property. Raphael replies by proposing to explain the customs of Utopia, to prove his point. That is the end of Book I, and of course, the prelude to Raphael’s detailed exposition of the mores of Utopia in Book II.

Scholars have long been divided over the question how to explain the metaphor of the play employed by More in his advice to Raphael. A first reading is that More’s advice to Raphael is a justification for appeasing rather than confronting power and for working within the system. This is also the interpretation of Achterhuis: he applauds More’s appeal for ‘patience and gradualism’, and criticizes the ‘hot-headed activism’ of Raphael, ‘who wants to eradicate evil down to its very roots’ (1998: 50). In the eyes of Achterhuis, More stands for sober reformism, and Raphael embodies the revolutionary spirit.[13] Achterhuis presents Raphael’s answer to More as proof that utopia is realizable, thus providing the basis for his thesis that the utopian tradition is defined by realizable blueprints. For Achterhuis, Raphael is the literary variant of a monster of Frankenstein: a construct that, once given life, rebels against its creator (More) and takes control over utopian discourse. Raphael is the embodiment of the ephemeral utopian logic that will seduce utopian thinkers in the ages to come. An alternate reading, which has been gaining in popularity in the last decades, interprets the advice of More as a plea for enveloping critique in literary or artistic form. Drama creates a space and place which looks and feels like reality, where marginal ideas can suddenly become the norm.

Duncombe describes the indirect approach as an artistic strategy, which involves the creation of an imaginary ‘lifeworld that operates according to different axioms’, leading the spectator to experience reality in a radically different way. The critic is no longer an outsider, trying to convince people that what they hold to be true – the dominant narrative – is actually wrong. The critic-turned-artist invents a radically new world where the coordinates of right and wrong are rearranged, a world that can be experienced by the audience as a convincing, and therefore detailed and holistic reality. Of course, such an approach also implies a limitation: as the work is fictional, it loses part of its authoritative power, it is not to be taken literally. Instead it opens itself up to the interpretation and imagination of the audience.

Significant here is what Logan and Adams identify as the ‘seriocomic mode of Utopia’ (Logan and Adams 1989: XXI). More, and his close friend Erasmus, with whom he discussed and conceived Utopia, were both admirers of the Greek/Syrian ironist known as Lucian of Samosata. Lucian’s writings took the form of dialogues and short pieces of prose, in which he would make serious political points, cloaked in satire. In 1506, a decade before the publication of Utopia, More published a translation of four works of Lucian, together with some additional translations by Erasmus. As part of this tradition, Logan and Adams mention also The Golden Ass of Apuleius, The Praise of Folly by Erasmus (written while residing in More’s house in 1509 and published in 1511, five years before Utopia[14]) and the later works of Rabelais and Swift. Logan and Adams refer to this tradition as serio ludere, ‘to play seriously’. As More wrote in the preface to his translations of Lucian, the quality of this tradition is that it obeys the classical requirement of literature, to combine delight with instruction. Not coincidentally, the (ironical) subtitle of More’s Utopia reads as follows: ‘A Truly Golden Handbook, No less Beneficial than Entertaining.’[15] According to Logan and Adams ‘More was also attracted to the tradition of serio ludere for a deeper reason. The divided, complex mind, capable of seeing more than one side of a question and reluctant to make a definite commitment to any single position, has a proclivity for ironic discourse; and serio ludere – in which the play can serve to qualify or undercut any statement – is one of the great vehicles of irony.’ (XXI).

The enigmatic quality of More’s Utopia stems from this double character: serious and satirical at the same time. As the book’s title – On the Best State of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia – makes clear, it is inspired by the classical tradition of political writing on the ideal state of the commonwealth, such as Plato’s Republic and Laws, and Aristotle’s Politics. Here the conjunction ‘and’ in the title is telling, instilling doubt as to whether the island of Utopia can be considered an ideal commonwealth: it is, after all, a fiction. In the second letter to Giles, More comments obliquely on his choice for this literary format:

‘I do not deny that if I had decided to write of a commonwealth, and a tale of this sort had come to my mind, I might not have shrunk from a fiction through which the truth, like medicine smeared with honey, might enter the mind a little more pleasantly. But I would certainly have softened the fiction a little, so that, while imposing on vulgar ignorance, I gave hints to the more learned which would enable them to see what I was about. Thus, if I had merely given such names to the governor, the river, the city, and the island as would indicate to the knowing reader that the island was nowhere, the city a phantom, the river waterless, and the governor without a people, it wouldn’t have been hard to do, and would have been far more clever than what I actually did. If the veracity of a historian had not actually required me to do so, I am not so stupid as to have preferred those barbarous and meaningless names of Utopia, Anyder, Amaurot and Ademus.’ (109).

This is of course exactly what More has done: Utopia means non-place, Anyder waterless river, Amaurot is a play on the Greek word amauroton, meaning dim or obscure and Ademus translates as ‘without a people’. A lot of the fun for the humanist scholars in the circle around More and Erasmus consisted of the fact that some contemporaries were actually tricked into believing that Hythloday and Utopia really existed.[16] In a letter published in the 1518 edition, the humanist scholar and printer Beatus Rhenanus describes a discussion of Utopia with ‘various important men’. He writes about a ‘foolish fellow’ who argued that More deserved no more credit than a paid scribe, since all that More did was write down what Hythloday said. Rhenanus then switches to Greek and comments: ‘Now, don’t you admire the sly wit of More, who can bamboozle men like these, not just ordinary dolts but men of standing and trained theologians at that?’ (126). We can conclude that almost 500 years later, More continues to bamboozle trained theologians.

So, what are we to make of Achterhuis’ claim that the irony of More does not affect ‘the rigorous logic’ of his utopian system? Or the idea that the detailed exposition of a blueprint in Book II of Utopia has served as the model for utopian thinking ever since? As we’ve seen, it is the fictional character of More’s Utopia that distinguishes it from previous political philosophy on the ideal commonwealth. Precisely that fictional quality would make it into the foundational text of the utopian genre. More invented a world instead of merely arguing for one. The descriptive details and the holism that Achterhuis sees as utopian family traits leading to totalitarianism, are in fact preconditions for a successful work of fiction. And it is this same fictional character that results in the ambiguity undermining the rigorous logic that Achterhuis is so eager to project on the work. After all, how can the island of Utopia be the ideal commonwealth? It openly contradicts the ideas of Raphael Hythloday, who states in Book I that ‘it’s an incompetent monarch who knows no other way to reform his people than by depriving them of all life’s benefits’ (33). In Utopia, crime is punished with slavery. Utopian society even contradicts the ideas of Utopians themselves, who believe ‘no kind of pleasure is forbidden, provided harm does not come of it’ (58), while in fact all sorts of harmless pleasures are forbidden, such as an unsanctioned walk in the country. The tale of Utopia is filled with absurdities and inconsistencies. The Utopians have golden chamber pots.

More himself, in the second letter to Giles, responds to the criticism of a ‘very sharp fellow’ who has ‘noted some absurdities in the institutions of the Utopians, or caught me putting forth some not sufficiently practical ideas about the constitution of a republic.’ More’s answer is telling: ‘Aren’t there any absurdities elsewhere in the world? And did any of all of the philosophers who have offered a pattern for society, a ruler, or a private household set down everything so well that nothing ought to be changed?’ (108-109). It is clear: Utopia is not a closed blueprint, it is meant as an open space for imagination and reflection upon possible changes to society. This much is confirmed by a poem attached to the early editions, printed in the Utopian language and in the voice of the island itself: ‘I alone of all nations, without philosophy, have portrayed for mortals the philosophical city. Freely I impart my benefits; not unwillingly I accept whatever is better.’ (119). As Duncombe rightly concludes,

‘Utopia does not have, nor provide to the reader, a wholly satisfactory philosophy; its systems of logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology are constantly undercut by More. But it is because the reader cannot satisfy themselves within the confines of Utopia that it can become a ‘philosophical city,’ a place to ponder and space within which to think.’ (Duncombe 2012: 40).

Seen in this light, utopian thought becomes a force that promotes many of the qualities that Karl Popper attributed to his ‘open society’: a spirit of criticism, reason and reform. Popper argued that the dream of perfection, what he calls aesthetic enthusiasm, ‘becomes valuable only if it is bridled by reason, by a feeling of responsibility, and by a humanitarian urge to help.’ (Popper 2006: 174). But what if it’s bridled by irony, by metaphor, by the explicit recognition that we are dealing with fiction?[17] Then it becomes impossible to maintain that ‘utopian thought has, from the very beginning, tried to prevent the emergence of an open society, in refined ways’.


Here we should return to the three core assumptions on which Achterhuis bases his approach to utopian thought. Let’s begin by rejecting his first assumption: the all-or-nothing approach to utopia – the idea that ‘the utopians explicitly oppose, starting with More, the reformism that seeks to improve certain elements or apply loose ideas. Partial improvements are for the right-minded utopian out of the question.’ (1998: 19). We have seen that at several points in the article above that More explicitly embraces reformism, writing of features he would like to see implemented, lessons one could take away from utopia, and that any pattern for a new society contains absurdities and impracticalities needing change and improvement. Of course, this does not mean that the subsequent utopian tradition necessarily contains an awareness of the inevitable imperfection of the utopian ideal. It just means that the unitary tradition of utopian thought as blueprint, the idea that Achterhuis has tried to develop, is a fiction.

The open-endedness of More’s Utopia – or the fictional character of the utopian genre as such – also implies that there is no posterior effect condemning all subsequent utopian authors to follow the ‘immanent utopian logic’ on a course to totalitarianism, even against their will. Here it becomes necessary to make a distinction between different tendencies of utopian thought. For Duncombe, ‘the problem with many social imaginaries is that they present themselves as a realizable possibility. Their authors imagine a future or an alternative and present it as THE future or THE alternative.’ (Duncombe 2012: 40). More’s Utopia manages to circumvent that problem, by undermining and thus opening up his utopian ideal. Utopianism and ‘the reformism that seeks to improve certain elements or apply loose ideas’ can thus be made to coincide, in democratic ways. This particular vision of utopia – as an unattainable ideal – has been present from the very beginning. It is articulated by Rousseau when he describes his much desired natural state of man, as a state that no longer exists, maybe never has existed, and probably never will exist (Rousseau, 1979 [1762]). The present defenders of utopian iconoclasm, such as Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, are in line with More’s original spirit, when stating that ‘the only authentic image of the future is, in the end, the failure of the present.’ (Eagleton 2000: 34).

The third assumption of Achterhuis, the collapse of the distinction between theory and practice, has allowed liberal Cold War critics to apply rigid schemes of interpretation to a rich and complex intellectual heritage. Authors such as Plato, More, Rousseau and Marx, have all been soiled with the stain of modern totalitarianism, while their work has contributed significantly to the foundation of modern democracy: Plato’s republican ideals inspired several democratic revolutions; More’s humanistic ideas contributed to the Renaissance; Rousseau equally inspired the modern education system, democratic revolutionaries, and the thought of Kant and Schiller; Marx provided a worldview to the workers movement that went on to campaign for universal suffrage, and gave rise to the modern welfare state. Of course their work is not without its shortcomings and should not be read uncritically – no text should be. But the idea that these texts have had a direct – inescapable and irresistible – effect in establishing totalitarianism leads to the conclusion that we ‘cannot meddle in it unpunished’. That would imply a severe restriction of our intellectual room for manoeuvre, and our democratic capacity of imagining alternative realities.

Between universalism and particularism: Marx’s conception of reformism in his late thought

There is an ongoing debate among those working in the Marxian tradition between strong universalists on the one side and those overly focused on the particular on the other. For example, in the field of Asian studies the former overemphasize the universal aspects of method and history – cutting across cultural boundaries – while the latter, subaltern, theorists tend to overemphasize the local and regional in their analyses (Chibber 2013: 26). In political philosophy and sociology universalists continue to stress the importance of universal categories like class, while those influenced by post-Marxism eschew them, considering them to be exemplars of a flawed, essentializing logic. Instead they emphasize the contingent in their analyses and point to the multifarious forms oppression and exploitation take which they believe cannot be captured by universal categories (Therborn 2008: 140-145). The debate strikes at the core of Marxist theory and method. By foregoing any sense of universality the Marxist project – with its distinct concepts, analytic tools and analyses – becomes mortally imperilled, while overemphasizing the universal endangers its explanatory power due to the overlooking or explicit discounting of the relevance of the local and variable (Chatterjee 2013: 73-74). In my view there is an alternative, contextualist approach possible, one which strikes a balance between the universal and particular without dismissing the importance of either. It is an approach which can be found in Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) late thought, which I aim to illuminate in this paper by explicating one specific, concrete expression of it: Marx’s late conception of reformism. It is not only an excellent illustration of the contextualist sensibility underlying Marx’s late thought, it also demonstrates that it was well-worked out theoretically rather than being a mere aberration. Moreover, it reveals how Marx sought to incorporate it within his already developed mature political theory, ensuring that it constituted a development from, rather than a break with, his earlier thought.

I will begin by explicating Marx’s various conceptions of reformism, with a focus on his late reformist turn, and then analyze the implications of this turn for his late thought so as to ascertain its place within it. After this analysis I will consider its implications for the two main schools of interpretation of Marx’s conception of reformism, the Leninist and humanist.  In so doing I will offer a reading of Marx’s late conception of reformism which, by putting into focus Marx’s reformist turn and exploring its relation to his broader political theory in his later thought, will lead to a novel and better understanding of both, while through its textual accuracy also reveal serious shortcomings in the secondary literature concerning the topic. Moreover, by elucidating the nature of the contextualist approach of Marx’s late thought, whereby he sought to strike the right balance between an overly universalizing and overly particularistic methodological and theoretical outlook, I hope to contribute to the ongoing debate between universalists and particularists by offering an example of an alternative which rejects the overemphasizing of either at the expense of the necessary and balanced unity of both.

Marx’s early conceptions of, and later turn toward, reformism

The varying conceptions of reformism Marx expressed throughout his life can be divided into three general phases. The early, pure reformist phase, limited in scope to the status quo of capitalist society, lasting until late 1843, early 1844; the second, absolutist revolutionary phase, characterized by a rejection of reformism; and finally the third phase marked by Marx’s turn toward reformism from 1870 onwards, characterized by a contextualist approach that saw both reform and revolution as a viable means of transition to communism, depending on the context (Lovell 2010: 51-60).[1] I will examine how exactly Marx perceived the nature of reformism in each of the three phases in turn, with a specific focus on the third.

Marx’s early conception of reformism

Before being drawn to revolutionary communism Marx wrote articles for the Rheinische Zeitung, containing penetrating social analyses of society’s ills such as poverty, and calling for reforms aimed at righting them. In an 1842 article typical of this early reformism he railed against the absurdities of a law that was to be introduced in the Rhine province concerning the thefts of wood. The poor, who had for centuries gathered wood unchallenged, would by the introduction of this law be considered criminals. Rather than punishing the poor who gather wood in order to survive, argued Marx, the state should ensure that there are no poor, the products of the ‘mere custom of civil society, a custom which has not found an appropriate place in the conscious organisation of the state’ (Marx 1976 [1842]: 235). This was to be done not by calling for a revolutionary transformation of society, but by appealing to the humanity and sense of justice of legislators.

In this early phase Marx was still very much under the influence of Hegel, who had posited a distinction between civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) and the state, with the former representing individual needs and self-interest and the latter representing a force which transcends the egoism of civil society and in its stead establishes norms which ensure true universality—the universal ruling over the particular. In this model the bureaucracy was considered to be the universal class, hence Marx’s appeals to them (Avineri 1967: 37). In 1843 he began to move away from this position, due in part to his increasing disillusionment with Hegelianism and its conservatism with respect to politics.

[2] By 1844 the appeals to the universal reason of the bureaucracy had turned into appeals for its dissolution by means of a social revolution, which Marx deemed capable of so changing the circumstances that social ills such as the above described would be alleviated.[3] Hegel’s distinction between the egoistic particularity of civil society and the altruistic universality of the state was denounced as a myth. In reality no such state as Hegel posits exists, and the identification of the bureaucracy as the universal class was flawed. Marx did not give up the notion of the universal class, however; he merely relocated it to the proletariat. In so doing, he also rejected the distinction between civil society and the state, instead proposing a model in which the proletariat, raised to the position of the ruling class, would, due to its nature as the true universal class, dissolve any kind of conflict in society at large. This would be the realization of a classless communist society. This view marked the beginning of the middle phase of Marx’s conception of reformism (Avineri 1968: 59).

The middle period

During the middle period Marx was advocating revolution as the primary means of transition toward a post-capitalist society, often doing so by formulating it as an absolute, universal principle and designating any deviation from it as reactionary. In this phase also, though, there are distinguishable degrees. From the beginning of the middle phase, that is, 1843-1844, up until the beginning of the 1848 Revolutions those who believed in reformism were not always denounced as reactionary, and a peaceful road to communism was not rejected on principle (Marx 1976 [1847]: 229). In the Principles of Communism, written in 1847 by Marx’s close co-thinker Frederick Engels (1820-1895) with the approval of Marx for the Communist League, those who believe in reform measures that are communistic in nature yet do not believe in the violent transition to a post-capitalist society are referred to as democratic socialists, whom ‘the communists will have to come to an understanding with’, even though they ‘are not yet sufficiently enlightened regarding the conditions of the emancipation of their class’ (Engels 1976 [1847]: 356-357). They are considered to be potential allies. In the same text the possibility of a peaceful transition to communism is acknowledged, though Engels hastens to add: ‘(…) the development of the proletariat is in nearly every civilised country forcibly suppressed, and (…) thus the opponents of the Communists are working with all their might towards a revolution. Should the oppressed proletariat in the end be goaded into a revolution, we Communists will then defend the cause of the proletarians by deed just as well as we do now by word’ (Engels 1976 [1847]: 350-351). This came to pass three years later in 1850, when the category of democratic socialists was transformed into ‘petty-bourgeois democrats’, who ‘wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible’ whereas communists aim to ‘make the revolution permanent, until (…) the proletariat has conquered state power’ (Marx and Engels 1976 [1850]: 282). The idea of a peaceful transition to communism all but disappeared from Marx’s writings.

What precipitated this shift toward revolutionary absolutism? It was due in part to the 1848 Revolutions and its aftermath. How Marx applied his materialist conception of history at this juncture clarifies the relation between the two. According to his materialist method of analysis, there were two kinds of conditions involved in allowing for a transition to communism, the objective and subjective. The objective conditions refer to factors related to the material environment – primarily the economic – which were considered a necessary but not sufficient condition for a communist transition. In order for such a transition to be effected, the subjective condition, which develops out of and is dialectically related to the objective, also had to be present.[4] This subjective factor refers to the state of the class struggle, which at an advanced stage involves the existence of a workers’ movement indicating the presence of a high degree of class consciousness among the proletariat, the universal agent of revolutionary transformation. In Marx’s estimation, in the period after 1850 up to 1870 the nature of these conditions were such that a peaceful transition to communism was impossible, for any movement toward the establishment of universal suffrage – the mechanism by which a peaceful transition would be possible – was effectively blocked in the immediate wake of the 1848 Revolutions.[5] Their crushing defeat and the emergence and entrenchment of autocratic regimes in the 1850’s and 1860’s dashed any hope for reformism (Hobsbawm 1995: 21-23). The only alternative that remained was revolution, and Marx was initially convinced, and later remained hopeful in the years following 1850, that the objective element was sufficiently developed to allow for the subjective element, the proletariat, to be sufficiently organized and class-conscious to take over state power in the major Continental nations via revolutionary means (Hollander 2010: 65).

Marx’s reformist turn

From 1870 onwards Marx began to systematically reassess his revolutionary absolutism and came to see the untenability of such a view in light of the failures and developments of the previous decades. The crux of his error lay not in his materialist method, he came to believe, but rather in his mistaken use of it with respect to his assessment of the existing objective and subjective conditions required for a transition to communism. The lack of organization on the part of the proletariat and its communist representatives, and the lack of development of the material conditions, i.e., the subjective and objective factors respectively, explained why the predicted proletarian revolution had not occurred. Moreover, developments in France, America and Russia made any kind of a priori, universal position regarding the transition period from capitalism to communism increasingly untenable as well. In the case of France and America suffrage and its progressive expansion was now on the immediate agenda, while with regard to Russia Marx began to appreciate the revolutionary potential of the peasant communes, as will be discussed in detail in the next section (Marx and Engels 1976 [1882]: 426-427). What also played a role, though more so for Engels who experienced these successes firsthand in the course of the 1880’s and 1890’s, was the spectacular growth of various socialist parties in Europe adhering to Marx’s vision of communism.[6]

The period after 1870 marks the beginning of Marx’s turn toward reformism. This did not mean a reversion to the first pure reformist phase. Rather, this novel conception of reformism was systematically worked out by Marx based on his mature method and political theory, the relationship between which will be discussed in detail in the next section. What exactly was the nature of Marx’s conception of reform in this third phase? While mentioning the possibility of England peacefully transitioning to communism in an 1871 interview he clarified the underlying reason for it: ‘Combinations among workmen cannot be absolutely identical in detail in Newcastle and in Barcelona, in London and in Berlin. In England, for instance, the way to show political power lies open to the working class. Insurrection would be madness where peaceful agitation would more swiftly and surely do the work’ (Marx 1976 [1871b]: 603). Similarly he said in his address to The Hague Congress of the First International a year later:

We do not assert that the attainment of [political supremacy of the workers] requires identical means. We know that one has to take into consideration the institutions, mores, and traditions of the different countries, and we do not deny that there are countries, like England and America and if I am familiar with your institutions, Holland, where labour may attain its goal by peaceful means. But if this is true we also must recognize that in most countries of the continent, violence must be the lever of revolution (Gerth 1958: 236).

The same sentiment was expressed on other occasions.[7] It is evident that from 1870 onward Marx believed certain objective and subjective conditions made a peaceful transition to communism possible, simply because the class struggle did not take the same form everywhere. Which conditions had to be fulfilled to allow for such a peaceful transition? The objective conditions that had to be met were the presence of suffrage, a sizeable proletarian class and of a democratic tradition and institutions. This requires a certain level of capitalist development, but it is not purely an economic matter for other elements, such as the institutional-political, also had to be present (Avineri 1968: 218). The subjective condition that had to be met was simply the presence of a workers’ or communist movement, regardless of size and strength.[8] The most important factor was the mechanism by which power was to be conquered peacefully—universal suffrage (Avineri 1976: 36-37). That is why from 1871 onward Marx believed these conditions definitely existed in England, America, and perhaps also the Netherlands, because there suffrage was being expanded to an ever greater extent, allowing workers hitherto excluded from the political process to take part in it in such a way as to allow the conquest of power by means of it (Hollander 2010: 70-71). This is also evident in Marx’s reassessment of the prospects for reformism in France. While in 1870 he contrasted it with the situation in England by arguing that in France ‘a hundred laws of repression and a mortal antagonism between classes seem to necessitate the violent solution of social war’ (Marx 1976 [1871b]: 603), by 1880 conditions had so changed with respect to suffrage that he now believed it was possible for the proletariat to transform it ‘from the instrument of deception which it has been hitherto into an instrument of emancipation’ (Marx 1976 [1880a]): 341). The viability of reformism is therefore inextricably linked to suffrage, and more generally to the strength of a democratic tradition, the existence of a sizeable proletarian class and of democratic institutions, and the positive prospects for their progressive expansion in a given nation.[9]

A crucial aspect of Marx’s late conception of reformism was, therefore, its contextualism. As previously noted, for Marx certain objective and subjective conditions dictated whether reform or revolution was to be pursued. Only a proper, materialist analysis of the specific context – the objective and subjective conditions of a specific nation – would determine the question of reform or revolution. As will be seen in the next section, the contextualist sensibility of Marx’s late conception of reformism was not a divergence from Marx’s otherwise rigidly scientistic, universalist method and theory, but merely one expression of an overall shift in his approach in his late thought (Shanin 1983: 31). 2. Implications of the reformist turn for Marx’s method and political theory, and interpretations thereof

There are several important conclusions to draw from Marx’s reformist turn for his broader political theory and the method underlying it, as well as the two main schools of interpretation of Marx’s conception of reformism, the Leninist and humanist. First I will discuss what it indicates with regard to his method, the materialist conception of history, and how exactly it is related to it so as to better understand both. Then I will go over the implications for his political theory, specifically his conception of the state and the transition period, and, finally, I will analyze how it affects the two main schools of interpretation of Marx’s conception of reformism.

The shift from Mechanism to Contextualism

Beginning with the methodological aspect, Marx’s turn toward reformism in his later life was part of a general shift toward sensitivity to contextuality in his later thought. It is key to understanding this novel approach in Marx’s later philosophy to be able to properly understand his late conception of reformism, for this was only one expression of a shift in his overall approach in his later life. In order to lay bare the exact nature of this shift it is helpful to make use of Hayden White’s work. In his detailed and influential analysis of argumentative strategies among the most important nineteenth-century historians and philosophers, White argues these are distinguishable in general tropes or categories, with the Mechanist and the Contextualist being two of them (White 1973: 16-18). Looking at the development in Marx’s method from his middle to late period through the lens of White’s concepts helps to elucidate its nature, for it displays a move from the Mechanist to the Contextualist, coinciding chronologically with the phases of Marx’s conception of reform in the middle and late period outlined in the previous section. In the writings of his middle period, from about 1843 to 1870, Marx generally displays Mechanist strategies of explanation, which ‘turns upon the search for the causal laws that determine the outcomes of processes discovered in the historical field’, while also searching for ‘the laws of historical process, when the term “laws” is construed in the sense of universal and invariant causal relationships’ (White 1973: 16-17). The methodology underlying this strategy – the kind of materialist conception of history Marx employed during this period – is characterized by a strong sense of universalism and economistic determinism (Shanin 1983: 4-5).

From 1870 onward, a shift takes place from the Mechanist to the Contextualist argumentative strategy. As discussed in the previous chapter, this was partly precipitated by the increasing awareness of the untenability of the strongly universalistic nature of his earlier analyses by anomalies appearing, such as the case of England with regard to the question of reformism and Russia with regard to his more general sketch of historical development, which will be discussed in more detail below (Wada 1981: 139-140). White describes the Contextualist strategy as denoting ‘a theory of truth and explanation represent[ing] a “functional” conception of the meaning or significance of events discerned in the historical field,’ and goes on to say: ‘The informing presupposition of Contextualism is that events can be explained by being set within the “context” of their occurrence. Why they occurred as they did is to be explained by the revelation of the specific relationships they bore to other events occurring in their circumambient historical space’ (White 1973: 17-18). Marx’s method was now characterized by a weak universalism, sensitive to the contingent nature of many aspects of development and local variations—it now possessed a contextualist sensibility hitherto overshadowed by a strong universalism. However, it is important to note that the Mechanist and Contextualist strategies are not mutually exclusive for White, nor do I read them as such. There were earlier writings of Marx, such as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), which also displayed Contextualist strategies, and it would be wrong to suggest that Mechanist strategies were wholly absent from his later work. However, what is clearly discernable is a pronounced shift in his general method and theory from the Mechanist to the Contextualist in his late thought (Shanin 1981: 8-9).[10]

Marx’s reformist turn was but one expression of this contextualist sensibility, but it can be clearly seen in other aspects of his thought as well. Take his Capital for example. In the 1857  preface, the laws of historical development Marx purports to have discovered, which inevitably would lead all societies to undergo the same development as occurred in Western Europe, are presented as natural laws, as universal as the law of gravity (Balibar 2007: 110). This changed in his later thought. Whereas before Marx’s method and theory was universal in scope, explicating a road which every society, regardless of local variations, invariably and by necessity had to follow, he now came to criticize such an approach. In a letter written to a Russian paper in 1877 criticizing a Russian interpreter of Capital who ascribed such a strongly universalistic, supra-historical aspect to his method – in line with his own statements to this effect in the 1859 Preface – Marx now insisted one must be sensitive to the particular as well as to the universal, calling for a contextual approach.[11] Étienne Balibar notes the importance of this shift as well, contrasting it with the ‘economistic’ nature of his earlier thought. ‘There is no universal history, only singular historicities’ in his later thought, he argues (Balibar 2007: 110).[12] This is true, but only up to a point.

As the reformist turn showed, there always remained some level of universalism to his overall method and theory, namely the employment of the materialist conception of history as a means to ascertain the best course for the realization of communism. The aim and the method, imbued with a contextual sensibility, were the main constants to remain in the late Marx’s thought. But what exactly did these consist of? As discussed in the previous chapter with respect to reformism, a certain set of necessary objective and subjective conditions had to be met before it was deemed viable, such as the existence of strong democratic traditions and institutions, developed capitalism and the sizeable proletarian class that comes with it, the presence of a workers’ movement, etc. The method consisted of ascertaining whether these elements exist or not, with a particular focus on the economic factor as the main determining component regulating the other aspects. As for the aim, that always remained the realization of a classless, communist society. However, both of these remaining universal aspects of Marx’s thought were, as said, imbued with a contextual sensibility. Perhaps the best exemplification of how Marx employed this contextualist method can be seen in the Russian case.

There, despotism ruled over a nation that was highly underdeveloped economically. Marx linked the two, considering the political superstructure to be the natural outgrowth of the economic base. In his Mechanist period this not only invalidated the possibility of a peaceful transition to communism, but any transition to communism at all, simply because the universal class, the proletariat – and the economic conditions which lead to its creation and development – was not sufficiently present to allow for such a transition to take place (Avineri 1968: 59-60). Russia had to first undergo capitalist development before communism could even be on the agenda for the foreseeable future. But this mechanistic reading gave way to a contextualist analysis in his later writings. In a series of letters written to the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, Marx discusses the possibility of the peasant communes in Russia – which he considered to be communistic in nature – allowing it to skip the capitalist phase of development and move directly toward communism (Wada 1981: 145-146).[13]

Marx’s turn to reformism in his late thought is therefore not an aberration, nor did it have anything to do with a newly developed moral sensibility as some have argued (Linden 1988: 344). Rather, it was part of a more general methodological and theoretical shift in approach, from Mechanism – marked by a strong sense of universalism where the universal overshadowed the particular – to Contextualism, characterized by a weak sense of universalism, where there was a constant search for striking the right balance between the universal and the particular, giving the latter its due.

Implications for Marx’s political theory

I will now discuss the implications of the reformist turn for Marx’s broader political theory, specifically his view of the state and the transition period to communism. In order to ascertain the implications for his political theory of Marx’s reformist turn in his later life it is necessary to discuss his views of the state, for Marx’s varying conceptions of reformism are intimately bound up with his conception of the state, which in turn shapes his conception of the transition period. Marx considered the state, regardless of its specific form, as being an instrument of class rule – in capitalist society by the bourgeoisie – which had to be taken over by the proletariat in the course of the social revolution (Avineri 1968: 50).[14] In 1871 Marx adjusted his conception of the state due to the experience of the Paris Commune. He now believed ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’ (Marx 1976 [1871a]: 329), but thought rather that the state has to be destroyed, and in its stead a commune state created, which, as Engels remarked, ‘had ceased to be a state in the true sense of the term’ (Engels 1976 [1875]: 65).

This is an important change of view in relation to his reformist turn, for if the conquest of power was no longer possible by utilizing the already existing institutions of the state but rather required its destruction, then how could Marx possibly posit the possibility of a peaceful takeover of power and transition to communism? Lenin and his followers seized on this discrepancy to argue the untenability of viewing Marx as advocating any kind of peaceful transition, dismissing his later conception of reformism as the product of a momentary lapse of reason or purely motivated by tactical concerns, ensuring the safety of members of the First International (Lenin 1970 [1917]: 66-69). Both claims simply ignore the textual evidence to the contrary (Singh 1989: 18). It ignores the fact that Marx wrote in support of reformism outside that context as well, for example when referring to England where no persecution of members was taking place and after the First International had already disbanded (Marx 1976 [1880b]: 50-51). More importantly, it ignores Marx’s methodological shift to contextualism in his later writings, of which the reformist turn was but one expression. The opening up of Marx’s political and social philosophy in this respect in his late thought is crucial for understanding his novel conception of reform during this period.

How then does Marx’s late conception of reformism fit with his conception of the state in this late period of his political theory? The answer lies in the manner in which Marx in this period believed the takeover of power by the proletariat would take place in those nations he believed to be suitable for reform, and the subsequent actions it had to take to begin the transition to communism. He took on an integrationist approach to the question, believing that the bourgeois state in such societies could be taken over by the proletariat by democratic means, using the tool of suffrage, who would then institute policies that would cause its gradual disestablishment into a commune state along with other policies that would begin the transition to communism (Avineri 1976: 36-37). How exactly Marx believed this process to occur clearly comes to the fore in the list of demands and policies he formulated as necessary actions to be taken after the takeover of power and during the transition phase to communism.

Marx formulated these demands and policies in various stages throughout his life (Marx and Engels 1976 [1847-48]: 506). Of specific interest are the lists of demands he formulated in his later writings, after the reformist turn. Of these the electoral program he wrote for the French Workers’ Party in 1880 is most significant, as it shows how exactly he perceived his conception of reformism could be integrated into his theory of the commune state in a nation he considered to be ripe for a peaceful transition to communism.[15] After the conquest of power of the proletariat through the use of universal suffrage, the bourgeois aspect of the already existing state machinery was to be disestablished through the gradual taking away of authority from its various institutions, most importantly the army, police and their concomitant ‘material adjuncts, prisons and institutions of coercion of all kinds’ (Engels 1976 [1884]: 271). Instead, the Commune was to have authority over its own police force and administration, while the standing army was to be disbanded and the working class armed (Marx 1976 [1880a]: 639). This last point is crucial because the army was considered to be central in Marx’s theory of the state, for the state’s authority rests on this force (Engels 1976 [1884]: 270-271). With the disestablishment of it and its transformation into a proletarian, Commune army, the bourgeois state would be transformed into a commune state—through gradual, peaceful rather than violent, revolutionary means. It is important to note that this analysis was not added to the program merely for propagandistic purposes, thought to be an unachievable aim that would draw support from workers for eventual revolutionary action. Jules Guesde, the leader of the French Workers’ Party for whom Marx wrote the program, did believe this.[16] This led to a sharp conflict with Marx from which originated the well-known phrase: ‘Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste (If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist).’[17] Moreover, it was not an isolated analysis, for the transition was thought to occur similarly in places like England (Avineri 1976: 36-37).

Finally, there is the issue of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx believed constituted the transition period from capitalism to communism. Leninist interpreters have argued that the establishment of a dictatorship is incompatible with a peaceful takeover of power, for if such a peaceful road were possible, no dictatorship would be required to obtain and maintain it during the transitional period (Lenin 1970 [1917]: 24-25). The error lies in the semantics of the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as used by Marx and as later distorted by Lenin and his followers. As Avineri notes, Marx used the phrase very rarely, and when he did, it was solely to denote ‘the class nature of political rule, not to the way in which any form of government is being carried out’ (1976: 38). For Marx, any form of political rule was dictatorial, making any state, regardless of form, a class dictatorship by default. The dictatorship of the proletariat does not refer to the form of the state, but merely to its class basis, which has no bearing on the possibility of a peaceful transition to such a state, which he clearly did believe was possible, as shown above. Therefore the aim of communism was not to simply replace the bourgeois state with the proletarian state, but to ensure the withering away of the state altogether. Lenin gave the term a new meaning, denoting dictatorial policies aimed at curbing rights Marx always remained in favor of and a specific, dictatorial form of government (Avineri 1976: 39).

So rather than his late conception of reformism being irreconcilable with the political theory of his late thought, Marx actively sought an integration of it by reformulating how he perceived the process of the conquest of power in those societies ripe for a peaceful transition to communism. The artificial dichotomy posed between the taking over of the state and the smashing of it is – like the dichotomy posed between reform and revolution – a product of Leninist interpretations of Marx, not of Marx’s political theory in his late thought.

Implications for interpretations of Marx’s conception of reformism

There are, broadly speaking, two schools of interpretation in the secondary literature concerning Marx’s conception of reformism which are on opposite sides of the falsely posed dichotomy between reform or revolution. There is the Leninist school of interpretation – of which Althusser was a prominent proponent – which views Marx’s mature political theory as always having been centered on the absolute rejection of a peaceful transition to communism and an embracing of a violent, revolutionary path to this end (Gilbert 1976: 10-11). Concomitantly it rejects the view that Marx’s late thought was characterized by a contextualist sensibility, instead perceiving it as strictly positivistic and mechanistic (Althusser 1969: 10-11). Key to this interpretation is a specific methodology of intellectual history which rejects any kind of eclectic appraisal of Marx’s thought which maintains that it did not consist of a singular essence remaining static throughout most of his life but instead underwent shifts and changes in focus, particularly in his earlier humanist writings and his later thought as explicated above (Kolakowski 1971: 115-116, 124). Instead, Althusser posited that Marx’s thought can be divided into two – the Young and Mature Marx – separated by an epistemological break. The Young Marx was still very much under the influence of Hegelian idealism, while the mature Marx was consistently scientific. Moreover, while the Young Marx was imbued with all kinds of false hopes about the potentials of reformism, the Mature Marx had left these illusions behind, rejecting any possibility for a peaceful transition to communism. Althusser and other Leninist interpreters universalize this version of Marx’s conception of reformism (Althusser 1969: 77).  The problem with such an interpretation is that it overlooks the complexity of Marx’s thought, which was clearly not as static and strongly universalistic as the Leninist interpreters claim, as evidenced, for example, by his reformist turn and the broader shift in methodology and theory of which it was a part, that occurred in his late thought as explicated in detail above (Smith 1989: 499).

The humanist school of interpretation, of which Avineri is a prominent proponent, takes the opposite view, considering Marx’s late political theory to be characterized by a strong adherence to reformism and a denial of the viability of a revolutionary transformation of society (Avineri 1976: 35). In terms of method humanist interpreters take a different approach as well. One cannot make a strict division between a Young and Mature Marx, they argue, for the two overlap in crucial respects. However, the Young, humanistic Marx eschewing determinism has to be seen as the core of Marx’s thought for it chronologically preceded his Mature, scientistic period and returned to prominence in his later thought (Althusser 1969: 56-57). While the humanists are more sensitive to the variations in Marx’s political theory and conceptions of reformism, they also follow the dichotomous approach of the Leninists by universalizing its humanistic, reformist aspects (Leogrande 1977: 129). Avineri denies that Marx continued to advocate a violent revolution as a means to transition to communism depending on the objective and subjective conditions. Instead, he argues, Marx believed a transition to communism to be impossible in these nations given their underdeveloped nature, for the presence of the requisite objective and social conditions for a proletarian conquest of power would make violent revolution superfluous (Avineri 1968: 217-218). This ignores Marx’s continued belief that a revolutionary transition to communism was not only possible but necessary in nations lacking certain objective and subjective conditions that would allow for a peaceful transition, such as the presence of suffrage and developed democratic traditions and institutions. More importantly, it ignores Marx’s belief in his late thought that even underdeveloped nations could make the transition to communism, as the Russian case clearly shows. By ignoring this crucial aspect of Marx’s late thought and the method that underlies it – its contextualist sensibility – Avineri and other humanists erroneously read a strong sense of economic determinism in him, believing that Marx only considered those nations sufficiently developed to allow for a peaceful transition to communism to be ready for it (Gilbert 1976: 15). The Leninists turn Marx into an ‘alchemist of revolution’ and the humanists turn him into a contemporary reformist social-democrat—while in fact he was neither.


After 1870 Marx became convinced that a peaceful transition to communism was possible as long as certain objective and subjective conditions were present. The required objective conditions were the existence of a strong proletarian class, which assumes a high degree of capitalist development, and the existence of a strong democratic tradition and political institutions, denoted in part by suffrage and its possible expansion by peaceful agitation and organization on the part of the organized proletariat. The subjective condition was the presence of an organized workers’ or communist movement. These conditions being present, any agitation for a revolution would not only be unnecessary, but even counterproductive and foolish. Nevertheless, this conception of reformism did not displace Marx’s conviction that a revolutionary path to communism was not only possible but a necessity in nations lacking these conditions (Singh 1989: 18).

However, Marx’s reformist turn was not an isolated aberration from an otherwise static methodology and political theory. Rather, it was precipitated by a shift in his overall approach in his late thought, characterized by the abandoning of a strong emphasis on the universal with its ignoring of the particular. Instead he sought to strike the right balance between the two by retaining certain universal concepts (e.g., emphasizing the economic factor in analyses and belief in the necessity of communism) while also giving the local and the contingent their due. Moreover, instead of ignoring possible conflicts with his earlier views regarding the nature of the state and the transition period to communism, Marx actively sought to integrate his novel conception of reformism within his broader political theory. The dichotomous approach regarding the question of reform or revolution, read into Marx by both Leninist and humanist interpreters, was by this point alien to Marx’s method and theory (Shanin 1983: 6-8 and Balibar 2007: 110). This reading of Marx’s reformist turn not only  accurately reflects the textual evidence but also, more importantly, fits the more general shift that took place in Marx’s thought during his later life.

But what value does Marx’s later conception of reformism have for Marxists today, if any? After all, his predictions about a peaceful transition to communism have been proven wrong by history, and while the revolutionary alternative has also not fared well, does this not point to its obsolescence? The valuable lesson to learn from Marx’s reformist turn lies in its relation to Marx’s more general method and political theory in his late thought of which it was only one manifestation.[18] His move away from dogmatism and scientism toward a contextualist approach eschewing strongly universalizing analyses which neglect or discount local variations and contingencies, is a methodological approach that those working in the Marxian tradition today would do well to heed in order to avoid the kind of universalizing logic that still plagues much of the tradition (Chatterjee 2013: 73-74), while preserving universal concepts and categories like class which provide contemporary Marxism with much of its analytic value and explanatory power (Chibber 2013: XI-XII).

Senseless violence or unruly politics? The uncivil revolt of young rioters

Mitch Hernandez was on holiday, visiting family in the Netherlands in late June 2015. On a Saturday evening the 42-year-old man from Aruba, one of the Dutch Antillean islands, attended the festival “Night at the Park” in The Hague with some friends. A few hours later, he was laying in the back of a police van, passed out from lack of oxygen, his face bruised and swollen. A day later, he was dead. Word spread quickly that Hernandez had been violently arrested by the police[1], and that this arrest had caused his death. Soon after, riots broke out in the Schilderswijk, a working class and multicultural neighborhood in The Hague. Enraged crowds of young people threw stones at the police, broke windows, plundered a supermarket and demolished the interior of a local theater[2]. For several days the unrest in the neighborhood continued. The events brought into mind the similar, but more extensive riots around Paris and other French cities in 2005, and around London and other British cities in 2011[3]. In these three cases riots broke out after unarmed men of color died following a confrontation with the police. The majority of the ones involved in the disruptions were young men of migrant descent, their families often linked to Western Europe through its colonial history, living in neighborhoods affected by poverty. In the media and amongst authorities an immediate moral condemnation of the rioters prevailed; the events were predominantly interpreted as senseless, criminal disorder instigated by deviant ‘outsiders’, threatening the cohesion of society[4]. Researchers, on the other hand, often focused on the sense of exclusion and socio-economic deprivation which underlay the riots (Lapeyronnie 2008, Kokoreff 2008, Slooter 2015, Lewis et al. 2011, Bertho 2009, Body-Gendrot 2005, Sutterlüty 2014, Klein 2012 a.o.). While the motives of young people for engaging in riots and other public disturbances are often diverse and diffuse, certain shared frustrations and grievances can be noted across contexts. A pervasive sense of injustice, lack of opportunities, anger about surveillance and police brutality played a role in all three cases mentioned here; the French riots in 2005, the English riots in 2011 and the Dutch riots in 2015. In this article, I focus on the political implications of these shared grievances and the disruptive ways in which they are expressed. I investigate the political significance of riots instigated by rebellious adolescents of migrant descent in Western European cities such as Paris, London and The Hague.

Can certain uncivil[5]or unruly behavior have political significance outside of an institutionally endorsed understanding of politics? It is this question which is often left insufficiently addressed in the analysis of unorganized civil disturbances, urban violence[6] or riots. I use the term “unruly politics” to designate the political agency of people who are not recognized as worthy, or formal, political actors within the domain of institutional politics, but who nevertheless interfere in the political organization of society, while they do not abide by the formal, moral and legal rules of accepted practices of civil engagement and political participation. I state that the young rioters involved in the events here discussed can be seen as unruly political agents who express a denunciation of an unjust state of affairs in institutional politics. In what follows I first take the recent riots in The Hague as my main example to explicate how youth from deprived neighborhoods are often excluded from the accepted citizenry because they are associated with deviant street culture. Their disruptive public interventions are easily perceived as senseless violence. The ones involved are not recognized as political subjects but either seen as threatening ‘outsiders’ to society, or pre-political victims of exclusion. However, in reference to Jacques Rancière’s notion of politics as dissensus, I propose to consider disruptive interventions like riots as events of unruly politics. Despite the fact that unruly politics should not be seen as a conscious political strategy to establish social change, it makes political sense. Events of unruly politics are politically significant not because they offer clear-cut solutions, but because they indicate a problem. They confront us with existing inequalities and socio-economic deprivation and signal the flaws in the existing formal structures of political representation.

Rage about exclusion and desire for emancipation

Despite the fact that Mitch Hernandez was not a youth from the neighborhood, his death ignited a powder keg of rage and frustration, which had been filling up for quite some time in the Schilderswijk in The Hague. Young men, often from Dutch-Moroccan families, felt discriminated and unjustly treated by the police due to recurrent stops, identity-checks and searches, sometimes in front of their own home and often leading to mounting fines[7]. Several violent arrests further increased the tensions between youth and the police in the neighborhood[8]. In addition to the bad relationship with the police, inhabitants felt stigmatized by the media. In 2013 the national newspaper Trouw published an article based on investigative journalism in the Schilderswijk, announcing that a part of the neighborhood was informally ruled by the Sharia[9]. This news caused quite a political stir. Right-wing politician Geert Wilders visited the neighborhood, where he commented that he felt like he was no longer in the Netherlands[10]. Questions were asked in Parliament and Minister of Social Affairs Lodewijk Asscher promised that the government would protect the ‘central values of the Dutch democratic and constitutional state’ and prevent the emergence of ‘parallel societies’ where inhabitants take the law into their own hands[11]. Despite complaints of several inhabitants who did not recognize their neighborhood in the media coverage, the Schilderswijk became easily associated with the territory of deviant, non-integrated and radicalized foreign elements, perceived as causing a threat to Dutch society[12]. This image was further enforced when a small group of radicalized young Muslims demonstrated with an ISIS-banner in the neighborhood in the summer of 2014[13]. The newspaper Trouw eventually withdrew the article about the so-called ‘Sharia-triangle’ in the Schilderswijk, after having discovered that the journalist responsible had invented sources. However, the negative image of the neighborhood persisted[14]. Several researchers and community organizers warned that riots could break out if authorities would not make public efforts to recognize the sense of exclusion of the, especially, young inhabitants of the Schilderswijk[15]. When Mitch Hernandez died at the hands of police officers from The Hague, this seemed to be the last straw. Violent clashes with the police followed and the division in the area between young people and the authorities was once again enforced. Ironically, the same image which led to mounted frustration was enforced by the riots: that of the Schilderswijk as an area where ‘outsiders’ undermine the well-being of Dutch civilized society.

It is not surprising that the riots were not readily recognizable as a political event, since there were no signs of a deliberate political, militant strategy[16]. The disturbances emerged randomly, with social media bringing together young people who had never met before and who did not express clearly formulated demands or a clearly formulated political ideology. The rioters did not make public statements about their motives and were not represented by spokespeople who addressed the press. Without intentionally communicated vision or goals the riots were easily perceived as a haphazard, mindless provocation. Some, including the Mayor of The Hague, indicated the Ramadan and the outdoors heat as causes of the disruptive events[17]. Due to these factors young Muslim people in the neighborhood seemed to be on edge, looking for excitement as soon as the sun set. However, others who themselves had participated strongly linked the riots to unequal opportunities and other experiences of unequal treatment by the authorities. On radio channel FunX, Yusuf said that after the riots he felt relief from his stress about the many times he was stopped and rudely treated by the police for only being a young brown man driving a nice car. Sky said that he wanted to target the government and that the death of Mitch Henriquez was not even on his mind when he joined the rioters[18]. These statements indicate that the initial tragic event became a pretext for expressing a variety of latent frustrations. Large numbers of young people from outside of the neighborhood became involved in the disturbances. The violence seemed to be motivated by a variety of incentives, ranging from rage about regular confrontations with racism and discrimination, to the pleasure of breaking the power monopoly of the police in the public domain, or the personal opportunism of obtaining material goods which are completely out of reach under normal circumstances. A journalist who observed the scene stated that the Schilderswijk became a ‘collection site of anger’[19]. He quoted another rioter saying: “Everything that belongs to the state can be destroyed. (…) Talking does not solve anything. They are not listening. Once a white man, always a white man. We have to fight for our rights.”[20] French anthropologist Michel Kokoreff also concludes that the structural ingredients in the pressure-cooker that lead to the emergence of riots are feelings of injustice and humiliation, most often inflicted by the police (2008, 19). According to Kokoreff, the violence of riots has two dimensions: an expressive dimension and an instrumental dimension. The expressive dimension reflects the feeling that the use of violence is the only way to convey discontent and to be heard by those in power, while the instrumental dimension reflects the wish to make the state and other public services aware of the basic resources that the adolescents involved lack in their lives (Kokoreff 2008, 18). It is both the rage about exclusion and the desire for emancipation that inspire riots. Even the looting which takes place during riots could be seen as an attempt of disqualified, poor young people to finally gain the tokens of success belonging to a dominant culture of consumption in neoliberal, capitalist societies (Bauman 2012, Winlow & Hall 2012). In this sense, the riots can be seen as a desperate act to make the state and the general public aware of the grievances of young people in marginalized positions. This brings the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote into mind: A riot is the language of the unheard. However, the state is not inclined to listen.

Street culture versus civil culture

The fact that riots are not readily recognized as political events is emphasized by the reaction of state representatives, who are primarily focused on the maintenance of public order and deny responsibility for the root causes of the disturbances (Lamble 2013). Authorities offer a representation of the events as a certain state of exception that can only be rightly dealt with by effective risk-management and a repressive practice of policing. As a consequence, the events tend to be understood not in relation to, but in opposition to society as lawless deeds, inspired by personal frustrations or desires of abnormal young people who do not know how to behave like good citizens. This attitude of state officials enforces the perceived lack of representation in mechanisms of institutional politics of the young people involved.

In the case of the riots in The Hague a pattern can be distinguished which was also visible at the onset of the earlier riots in Paris and London (Sutterlüty 2014, 41-43). In all cases violence erupted after a confrontation with fatal consequences took place between the police and a man of color[21]. The police initially refused to take responsibility for the events. In The Hague, the police announced that Mitch Hernandez had been fine before entering the police van, and had become unwell during transportation. However, video footage emerged showing that a group of officers held Hernandez in a choke-hold before dragging him into the van while he was already unconscious. Research later proved that police violence was indeed the cause of Hernandez’ death[22]. Secondly, when peaceful protests started, representatives from the institutional domain showed a lack of recognition for the grief of those surrounding the victim, and a lack of respect for those expressing their frustration and discontent regarding the events[23]. In The Hague the first violent skirmishes took place in front of the police station Heemstraat in de Schilderswijk, when demonstrators felt they were not sufficiently and seriously addressed by the police[24]. Other state representatives added fuel to the fire by failing to recognize the frustrations leading up to the riots, and primarily focusing on the rioters as criminals. In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the rioters achterlijke gladiolen (retarded knuckleheads) and seemed to be more upset by the destruction of property in the neighborhood than by the death of Mitch Henriquez[25]. Mayor of The Hague Jozias van Aertsen spoke about the brute violence of ‘vandals’ and denied the existence of police violence or discrimination in his city[26]. The reaction of Nicolas Sarkozy, then French Minister of Internal Affairs, to the Parisian riots and the reaction of David Cameron, British Prime Minister, to the London riots were even stronger.[27] Sarkozy described the youth involved in the French riots as criminal gang members and scum from whom the country should be liberated. British Prime Minister David Cameron analyzed the London 2011 riots as a sign of the “moral collapse” of a “broken society.” By stating that this moral collapse is manifested by a lack of parenting skills in “troubled” families, and that an “all-out war against gangs and gang culture” is needed, Cameron sought the origin of the riots in deviant socio-psychological behavior, youth culture and youth delinquency. He explicitly stressed that the riots were a matter of gang culture and not of poverty, discrimination or unequal social opportunities.

These statements indicate that the riots are not seen as an aspect of the social dynamics within society, but as a threatening destabilization of society by those who do not merit to be seen as fellow citizens. The riots are framed as originating from a deviant street culture which generally threatens the public sphere in Western European cities[28] (Decker and Weerman, 2005), while possible political motives are not acknowledged. Frustrations in relation to discrimination, ethnic profiling, poverty and isolation are not recognized as valid incentives underlying the disruptive events and are consequentially not seen as issues of injustice and inequality which could be tackled in the political arena. Hence, the rioters seem to be alien aggressors, affecting society from the outside. Politicians deny having a relation with these troublemakers, let alone take responsibility for addressing their grievances. Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he did not see the need to visit the Schilderswijk to engage in a conversation with the rioters because he considered them fools causing a scene[29].

A continuous emphasis on the ‘pointless violence’ in the actions of young ‘troublemakers’ places them outside of the body of ‘normal’ citizens, and inside a frame of deviant exponents of a dangerous street culture. Their abnormality is seen as being caused by social and educational deficiencies, alcohol and drug abuse, criminal tendencies and/or an aggressive, antisocial youth culture[30]. This street culture seems to collide with the dominant, civil culture in society (Van Strijen, 2009) and seems to be devoid of any socio-political awareness. As a consequence of this dichotomy young rioters are easily placed outside of the moral structure and political rules of society. They are not recognized as political agents because their actions seem to lack a clear political goal and a strategy aimed at constructive and effective alternatives. This depoliticization of the riots becomes possible when political participation is defined within an institutional context. One acts politically if one either remains within the framework of political institutions by the practice of voting or membership of a political party, or if one aims to deliberately reform this framework of political institutions, by adopting social movement strategies such as demonstrations and strikes. The actions of young rioters do not fit in with this representation of politics.

I wish to contest this exclusion from the domain of citizenship and politics of young urban troublemakers, by stating that their disruptive interventions in urban space can be seen as a form of unruly political agency (Kaulingfreks 2015). In the act of rioting, marginalized young people can make themselves visible as citizens who are not sufficiently represented in the formal practice of politics. Their disruptive actions therefore have a political sense, even if they express themselves in unconventional ways, even if they operate outside of the domain of the law and even if they do not share a dominant culture, which is imagined as the foundation of good citizenship.

The apparent senselessness of riots

Before I take a closer look at rioting as a form of unruly political agency, it is important to indicate that the events are often interpreted as non-political or pre-political because the people involved are not recognized or represented within the political domain. Various analyses of the French riots of 2005 can serve as an example here, in which the lack of political agency of those involved is emphasized, exactly because they are positioned at such a distance from institutional politics. According to French anthropologist Alain Bertho, riots in general can be seen as an enraged and frustrated reaction to the painful distance between an officially recognized political discourse and the complicated social reality in which people living in precarious circumstances find themselves (2009). Riots thus indicate a profound rupture between the political domain of the state and the desire for political recognition of the people. Robert Castel equally states that riots in which youth from the French banlieues are involved can be seen as a desperate call for attention of those who are not recognized as full citizens in possession of political agency (Castel 2006). The rioters cannot be political agents, because of their exclusion. Peter Sloterdijk explicitly looks at the Parisian riots in 2005 and states that a lack in the political system was painfully presented, but no political agenda was established. The rioters rage and “hatred against the status quo” were not effectively channeled by existing political movements and could not therefore be translated into one overarching project of transformation. No political parties took up the task to convert the violent and destructive energy of the riots into a constructive political strategy (Sloterdijk 2010, 206). The rioters therefore remained stuck in a senseless destruction of territory, infected by an “epidemic of negativity” (Sloterdijk 2010, 211). For Sloterdijk, the demonstration of a lack in the existing political order has no political meaning in itself. It is only in a profitable operationalization for actual and effective change that the violent expression of anger and frustration can make sense. He therefore makes a distinction between useless, and thus senseless, violence and the profitable operationalization of violence for a higher goal.

Michel Wieviorka and Étienne Balibar also emphasize the incapacity of young rioters to convert their violent disruptions into a constructive and effective political agency. Michel Wieviorka characterizes those who are involved in urban violence as “floating subjects” (2005, 292-293). The floating subject is not capable of translating his or her social demands into actions, which make sense within a socio-political frame of reference. Hence, the violent behavior of such a “floating subject” seems to be adrift, devoid of any connection to the rest of society. The floating subject seems to signal a “lack of sense,” and is characterized as non-social and non-political by Wieviorka. Étienne Balibar makes a similar analysis of the subjectivity of young rioters, with a slightly different conclusion. According to him, involvement in riots should be understood as a manifestation of “antipolitics” (Balibar 2007, 62). When citizenship is emptied of its content, because a group is not seen as a full part of the nation and therefore denied representation within the political system, we can speak of “antipolitics.” The revolt of rioters is in the process of becoming political (2007, 65). What makes it not yet political is its singularity, the lack of connections with other groups in society which suffer from similar injustices and mechanisms of exclusion. Alain Badiou analyzes the London riots of 2011 in a similar vein. Badiou describes these riots as an example of ‘immediate riots’. Such riots emerge as an immediate reaction “in the wake of a violent episode of state coercion” (2012, 22). Immediate riots are too premature to hold a political significance, because of their lack of organization and focus. Badiou reserves political meaning for events which lead to intentionally organized, militant uprisings. Such uprisings require a strong ideological proposition, around which the masses can be mobilized, and a strong political organization, which follows the initial events. Central to such events is the political organization of a universal emancipatory subject which could do away with “identitary fictions,” as they are applied by the state. The aim of such fictions is to separate groups of people with differently ascribed identities from the generic collective of the people, who could act affirmatively together (ibid., 92-93). In contrast, immediate riots have an “impure subject” (ibid., 26) because the intentions of the involved actors cannot be ascribed to the same universal revolutionary aspirations. In addition, the locality of the riots cannot transcend into a larger movement of uprising, which also appeals to people who are of a completely different identity and social status to that of the instigators.

Within these reflections on the riots it is assumed that in order to act politically, a certain political subject intentionally applies violent measures in order to reach a predetermined goal. The distinction between senseless violence, which stands alone, and purposive violence as a means to an end can be inscribed in a more general analysis of the political meaning of public, violent agency. Discussions of the political meaning of violence are often understood in a relational setting between means and ends, revolving around the question of the legitimacy of an instrumental use of violence in light of a higher political goal[31]. The central question here is whether violence can be legitimized as a temporary tool to be used in the project of the creation of a better, more equal and more just world, in which the very violence itself can later be completely abolished (Welten 2006). Violence appears to be senseless if it has no clear instrumental value in relation to an external, recognizable goal. The more riots seem to emerge as singular events, which “just” seem to happen because it was hot, and/or the opportunity was there and the adrenaline took over, the easier they are discredited as acts of senseless vandalism.

It is this “autotelic” aspect of senseless violence that is the most frightening and the least understandable (Schinkel 2010). Autotelic violence is pure and immediate since it is not focused on anything other than its own performance (Schinkel 2010, 100). While a form of violence which is purely autotelic is hard to imagine, every kind of violence is at least partially inspired by a certain attraction to violence itself and is therefore partly autotelic. Cases of urban violence can easily be seen as examples of autotelic – and therefore senseless – violence because of their sudden, unpredictable appearance, irrational development and lack of clear focus. It is the random element of destruction and also the apparent enjoyment of the violence by its instigators which makes them an ideal cause for moral panic amongst the general public (Schinkel 2008, Cohen 1972). The fact that urban riots seem to defy all laws imaginable, even those of militant strategies, makes them intensely threatening. The general public cannot understand the motivation underlying the riots and is shaken by its effects. The riots’ autotelic element clarifies comments that describe them as a danger to national security, civil peace and shared solidarity, and makes measures like a declaration of national emergency understandable (Goodwin et al. 2012, Ossman and Terrio 2006, 6).

Riots to indicate a lack in the political system

The shock effect and singularity of riots could also be interpreted differently, if we perceive them not as expressions of a traditional political conscience (Belhaj Kacem 2006). However, the fact that they cannot be inscribed in a political strategy which is generally understood to be rational and constructive, does not make them politically insignificant. Belhaj Kacem speaks of a political “inoperativeness” that is expressed by the young people involved in French riots (2006, 10) – a certain “unworking” of political structures. Their actions are testimonies of precisely those aspects of the political system that do not work, at least not for them. As far as explicit claims can be read in acts of rioting, such events allude to something that is radically missing. This is a fundamentally different mode of expression than that of an organized political insurrection. Slavoj Zizek emphasizes that this inoperativeness of riots is not devoid of political significance, even though we cannot inscribe this significance in a traditional framework of emancipatory political agency. In his book “On Violence,” Zizek describes the riots that took place around Paris in 2005 as a wild and uncontrolled outburst of violence without a future perspective of transformation (2008). This “outburst with no pretence to vision” seems to be an illustration of the “post-ideological” times in which we live (Zizek 2008, 63). No realistic alternatives were proposed for experienced injustices; only an uneasy feeling of resentment without explanation was transmitted. However, Zizek sees the riots as a “direct effort to gain visibility” (2008, 65) of those who are excluded from the domain of social and political organization. “[T]hey found themselves on the other side of the wall which separates the visible from the invisible part of the republican social space” (Zizek 2008, 66). Here, the riots become significant not in order to offer a solution, but in order to indicate a problem: the problem of those banned from society and confined to a status of the “outlaw.” Therefore, it is precisely in the riots’ apparent senselessness where their political sense can be found. The disorder which riots imply seem senseless from an organized perspective on politics, but make political sense if we look at them as a violent condemnation of an order which has become unacceptable because of the injustices it produces. The perceived senselessness of riots is caused here by a lack of recognition for the less visible systemic violence against which it is opposed.

These qualifications of the riots bring Rancière’s notion of politics as dissensus into mind. As Jacques Rancière mentions, a disruption of the status quo in politics can have a political meaning even without a deliberately developed political strategy, precisely because it calls attention to a lack of representation within institutional politics. Not surprisingly, Mustafa Dikeç identifies the 2005 riots around Paris as “unarticulated justice movements”, in reference to Rancière (2007, 3900 kindle edition). For Rancière, politics does not imply a negotiation of interests of identity-based groups within a neutral sphere of parliamentary debates, nor does it imply the exercise of power (2010, 27). Instead, politics begins where the exercise of power is interrupted, and the orderly organization of society is disturbed, in the name of those who are excluded from that organization. As Douzinas states, Ranciere places the excluded at the heart of politics (Douzinas 2013, 113). Politics should therefore not be sought in the domain of ruling institutions, but rather on the level of disruptive interactions between people without any status and those ruling institutions. Rancière takes the expression of dissensus as a point of departure for considering his notion of politics, even if it carries us across the boundaries of lawful political participation. He explicitly focuses on the role that marginalized groups, which are not recognized as taking part in any existing political process, can play in the emergence of a new, political evocation of equality. Politics, in his opinion, emerges in the moment that people express their disagreement with an order of governance which falsely pretends to reflect the equal distribution of “social parts and shares” (Rancière 2010, 35,37). Rancière speaks of a disagreement which is fundamental to such an extent that it cannot be solved by aiming at a consensus under the same shared terms, because the one party does not even recognize that the other party is communicating something. Both parties disagree because they not only speak a different language, but also because at least one party is not recognized as an equal addressee or an equal adversary in the same discussion (Rancière 1999, xii).

This kind of radical disagreement involves not only situations in which the language used by a party is not recognized as meaningful language, but also – and even more often – situations in which the very existence of a group of people is not recognized as the existence of a meaningful part of society. According to Rancière, those who are marginalized because they are poor, or because they deviate in other ways from the accepted norm, are structurally kept in their subordinate place. This happens not only because they are not taken seriously as actors in the public domain, but because their utterances, whether linguistic or not, are not recognized as having any meaning at all (Hewlett 2007, 97). A failure to recognize someone as a “political being” begins by “not understanding what he says” (Rancière 2010, 38). This happens, for example, when expressions of certain people are not recognized as meaningful in the public domain, because they are confined to another domain. An example would be the situation in which rebellious young people are confined to the domain of street culture, which is seen as detached from the domain of civic culture. In that situation, these young people are not recognized as “political beings,” since their public interventions are seen as senseless vandalism, which does not conform to the political rationality of “normal” citizens. Yet, if we follow Rancière’s understanding of politics, it is precisely those who disturb the existing socio-political order who are acting-out politically. The act of disruption in itself gains political significance. Young rioters can reveal who is not included within the system of governance, and hence confront us with the very limits of the majority’s dominant understanding of politics. 

Riots as events of unruly politics

Ranciere’s analysis clarifies how those who disrupt an exclusionary political order can be seen as political agents. When people stand up to declare their own equality to others, and also if they do not conform to dominant norms of good citizenship, this is an act of political subjectification, according to Ranciere. In such a case, the division is denied between those categories of people who can share in the construction of a political order, and those who cannot, and it is recognized that “equality cannot be received, because to receive equality is already to be less than equal to the one who bestows it” (May 2008, 71).

Because politics as disagreement causes a sudden awareness of the equal presence of certain excluded groups, its emergence is always simultaneously embedded within a particular situation, and causes a deregulatory effect within that situation. Riots emerge in a direct reaction to a specific practice of political governance, which does not guarantee civic equality (Sutterlüty 2014, 49). Rancière offers a general, structural analysis of disagreement and disruption as politically meaningful. I propose to understand the riots here discussed as events of unruly politics, because in these cases the disruption of the political order is explicitly subversive, violent, and law transgressing[32]. The perceived senselessly violent nature of the events and the perceived incivility of those involved indicate how much unruly politics can differ from accepted forms of political agency. It defies the boundaries of dominant rules. Rioters take the law into their own hands, when the existing laws no longer correspond with the principle of justice as they perceive it. However, even though riots and other cases of urban violence manifest themselves outside of the ruling legal order, they do not lack every relation to the law. Such violent events emerge out of a discontentment with – and therefore a direct engagement with – that legal order, rather than a complete detachment from that legal order. Unruly politics does not spring out of nowhere. It might be the only option left, if disadvantaged groups feel that their moral outrage about their situation is not shared by the general public, and if laws and institutions represent only a narrow sense of justice, serving the interests of certain privileged groups in society (Shelby 2007, 157-158). In the uncomfortable and disruptive act of street disturbances and rioting, it becomes apparent who is excluded from the political game, as it is played in the conventional way. Young rioters often do not feel that they are part of the system of political representation at all. This feeling of exclusion can become a legitimation for rebellious young people to design their own rules of the game. In this sense, unruly politics is not about creating a state of total anarchy, but rather about creating “subversive ruliness.” The translation of justice into a system of laws is not dismissed as useless or unnecessary altogether; it is the functioning of existing laws which is questioned.

To sum it up: Unruly politics is a name for describing the interventions of those who disrupt the framework of institutional power relations, because they are in a position which leaves them no other option for influencing the organization of society other than to disrupt the status quo, which does not represent their needs. It is a practice of politics that would not make any political sense if we were to define politics only within the limits of the institutional political game.

Unruly politics, as we define it, is political action by people who have been denied voice by the rules of the political game, and by the social rules that underpin this game. It draws its power from transgressing these rules – while at the same time upholding others, which may not be legally sanctioned but which have legitimacy, deeply rooted in people’s own understandings of what is right and just. This preoccupation with social justice distinguishes these forms of political action from the banditry or gang violence with which threatened autocrats wilfully try to associate them. (Khanna et al. 2013, 14)

Unruly politics demands “a new mode of political enquiry which spills outside of traditional notions of politics, and in which the relevance of acts and events is not reduced to the effect they have on formal structures of the political establishment” (Khanna et al. 2013, 11). Expressions of unruly politics do not allow themselves be translated into the language of negotiated demands and interests, within a setting of parliamentary mechanisms (Khanna et al. 2013, 10). They do not abide by the logics of representative politics, but rather enunciate a political meaning which is unmediated, which does not let itself be represented or translated in another context, in another moment or for the benefit of other people. Unruly politics is always situated in a specific time and place, engaging specific people. It cannot be reduced to fit into general procedures, designed to bring a plurality of people together in one body of manageable citizens. At the same time, expressions of unruly politics evoke a deep wish to live a dignified life and be treated justly by state representatives, regardless of the particular envisioning of what a dignified life might entail in each different situation, for every different person. It is not carefully designed as a party-political campaign, nor is it driven by great revolutionary aspirations or clearly defined ideologies, but rather emerges in unexpected events. It does not only take place at sites that are specifically designed for public and political debate; it also politicizes spaces which are meant to be neutral or private, such as the streets.

Unruly political agency is necessarily critical towards the legitimacy of the state, as long as the state does not safeguard justice and equality for all, regardless of people’s social and economic privileges, or their citizenship status. Those who lack a formal citizenship status, or who feel impaired in making use of their formal citizenship status, literally gain space for their lives in informal or extra-legal ways. Through these same informal channels they sometimes have considerable impact on the formal domain of politics. The more the range of unruly political events expand and become publicly known, the more chance they will gradually transform into a more conventional mode of political agency and be incorporated into the domain of formal politics. After the flames are extinguished and the smoke clears, politicians can feel the pressure to recognize the grievances of rioters, and new social movements can emerge from the initial, violent and disruptive events. In relation to the English riots of 2011, Nunes states that the events were politically significant as a starting point for further politicization, even though a variety of motives and incentives was apparent and not all participants were consciously ‘doing politics’. The events showed tensions, but also possibilities for solidarity between a young gentrifying lower-middle class and a young underclass in the neighborhoods where the riots took place, for example (Nunes 2013, 572-573).

In this sense, the notion of unruly politics is similarly related to the domain of institutional politics as the “informal politics” which Asef Bayat describes in his book “Street Politics” (1997). Bayat explores the political agency of the urban poor and marginalized in the Middle East, who have no ‘institutional power of disruption’ (1997, p. xii), but rather disrupt institutional power constellations with their day to day struggles to gain, sometimes literally, a place in society. What Bayat names street politics, is first and foremost a movement of ordinary people who wish to secure the necessary means to make a living for themselves and their close ones, while suffering from a “lack of an institutional mechanism through which they can collectively express their grievances and resolve their problems” (Bayat 1997, 9). At the same time, the fact that many people struggle simultaneously for their personal survival makes it possible for a shared political sense in these singular struggles to emerge. The streets are the domain where they meet and form occasional alliances (Bayat 1997, 17).

These people live perforce without the support of official state institutions, yet, at the same time, they often deeply distrust any state interference in their lives. Out of fear of being regulated, controlled or disciplined by formal state procedures, they search for autonomous and alternative ways to sustain themselves and gather in informal communities in which they are free to mind their own business. They do not feel the urge to make publicity for any claims of general interest or to recruit allies in the perspective of a general transformation of society. These struggles are related to what James Scott named ‘everyday forms of resistance’, which are less concentrated in singular, public, violent and explosive events such as urban riots. Informal street politics therefore differs from unruly politics. However, it can be similarly differentiated from both institutional politics and the ‘contentious politics’ of new social movements (Lettinga & Kaulingfreks 2015). In contrast to social movements, both the urban poor who engage in street politics, and young rioters who instigate events of unruly politics, do not form a coherently structured collective around clearly formulated, shared political claims or a collective ideology. Bayat prefers to speak of “nonmovements”, in reference to “the collective actions of noncollective actors; they embody shared practices of large numbers of ordinary people whose fragmented but similar activities trigger much social change, even though these practices are rarely guided by an ideology or recognizable leaderships and organizations” (Bayat 2010, 14). Other than in social movements the emphasis is placed on the undertaking of collective ‘action’ (sometimes out of self-interest) rather than on the articulation of collectively-shared ‘meaning’ (Bayat 1997, 7). Conflicting motives, convictions and agendas are common in the domain of street politics as well as in events of unruly politics, and strong leadership is absent. Bayat’s analysis further clarifies how the agency of people with similar experiences, who do not organize themselves into political pressure groups or social movements, can nevertheless make political sense in an unruly way.

Recognizing the rioters

The analysis of unruly politics is aimed at finding political meaning beyond the borders of formal governance. These considerations should not be understood as a simple celebration of violence, illegality and incivility. It is not a matter of celebrating unruliness as the only true political option here. As I have emphasized before, unruly politics takes place in an inextricable relationship with formal political institutions and cannot be seen as an alternative replacement for these institutions. However, a critical examination of our imagined political community cannot take place without listening to the voices of those who express themselves in unconventional or undesirable ways, but who nevertheless share the social world with us. Whether we condemn or support their actions, young rioters co-exist in the same society with “familiar”, law-abiding citizens, and we therefore have to consider the possible political meaning of their actions before we make further judgments.

If we a priori dismiss the involved actors of riots and other unorganized civil disturbances as not having any relation to the practice of active citizenship and politics, the lack of recognition and representation which they experience is enforced. An analysis of said disruptive events in the light of unruly politics prevents such immediate exclusion. We should merit the political sense of unruly political actions, such as riots and public disturbances, as acts in themselves, without immediately demanding an effective outcome. In a situation in which structural social changes are hard to imagine for a young generation growing up in times of crisis and polarization, one should not measure their political conscience by their ability to propose alternative models for society, but with their ability to open our eyes to the flaws in the existing political model of representation.