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Marxism, Religion and Femonationalism: An Interview with Sara Farris

by | July 13, 2017

George Souvlis: Would you like to introduce yourself by describing the formative experiences (academic and political) that strongly influenced you?

Sara Farris: I grew up in a little town of 12,000 people in Sardinia (Italy). I was politicized there and it was definitely in this period – between age 12 and 18 – that I had some of the most formative political and academic experiences of my life. I come from a working class family; like many of their generation, my parents invested strongly in education in order to secure the social mobility of their daughters. I also grew up in a family in which discussions about politics – or I should rather say – my father’s monologues about political events both national and international, were routine at the dinner table. My father was some kind of a socialist, who strongly believed in social justice though he was very skeptical about the possibility that the workers, as he knew them, would be able to bring about any type of social change.

In any case, I guess I am trying to say that my family’s environment certainly exposed me to the importance of education and the ideas of the left. I then attended a classical lyceum in my home town. It is here that I was first politicized and that I also discovered my interest for sociology. When I was 14 I was approached by a friend –a sort of Marxist-friendly anarchist – who asked me to join a political group he and some other people were forming in order to shake up the tedious cultural life of our town and to demand more investment in culture by the mayor. It was a very weird group made up mostly of Trotskyists and anarchists (of course, we had lots of fights over Kronstadt!), as well as young people who did not identify with any particular political tradition but were attracted by the discourse of the far-left. The Trotskyists of the group belonged to the 4th International at that time; they organized the most theoretical discussions on the political conjuncture inviting especially the youngest of us to read Marx and Lenin. I was fascinated particularly by them, as they seemed to me to provide the most coherent answers to the issues we were discussing; but I was also somehow allergic to what I perceived as a certain communitarianism and sectarianism on their part.

A few years later, when I enrolled at the University La Sapienza in Rome, I became a member of Communist Refoundation first (Rifondazione Comunista) and the section of the 4th International afterwards. I found the Trotskyist comrades in Rome to be much more open than those in my hometown and I agreed with their politics, particularly with their strong emphasis on the importance of feminism. During these years in Rome I was also fascinated by the multiculturalism of the city and I became very interested in migrants’ struggles and migrant women’s specific position in the so-called destination countries. I think this combination of factors shaped the type of Marxist anti-racist feminism that probably best describes my approach.

Let’s discuss Max Weber, whose work is the topic of your first monograph, Max Weber’s Theory of Personality. Weber is one of the first observers to recognize that the structural change of modern mass politics threatened the basic tenets of nineteenth-century liberal parliamentarianism. The emergence of mass parties in the first two decades of 20th century challenged radically notions and practices of the political status quo of the period. One of Weber’s risky intellectual answers to this ongoing crisis was the theory of charismatic-plebiscitary democracy. Do you think that we could draw elective or direct affinities between this conceptualization and Carl Schmitt’s theory of plebiscitary legitimacy of the President of the Reich? Could we say that Weber prepared – along with other disillusioned liberals – the intellectual background for the rise of authoritarian theories like that of Carl Schmitt?

The question of the affinity between Weber and Schmitt on charismatic-plebiscitary democracy is one of the most debated ones, from Mommsen (who was among the first to propose it) to Habermas and others. Mommsen did not argue that the two thinkers’ political and theoretical positions were compatible in general – as they were in fact very different on most accounts – but rather that their ideas converged in one particular case: that is, Weber’s idea regarding the necessity for a plebiscitary-charismatic democracy in the wake of the German Revolution, and Schmitt’s opposition to parliamentary democracy in the last years of the Weimar Republic.

To be sure, Weber’s political thought and positions consistently oscillated between liberalism and more authoritarian tendencies. On the one hand, he advocated for an “agreement” between the liberal forces of Germany and the labour aristocracy within the Social Democratic party in order to consolidate the country’s transition to capitalism and “modernization”. On the other hand, Weber was a strong admirer of Bismarck and believed that politics needs strong charismatic leaders. And we should remember that for Weber, the charismatic leader is not someone who uses their appeal to seek consensus, but rather someone whose power is already legitimate in itself because of the charismatic gift he (because it is a man Weber implicitly think about) possesses.

There is something very aristocratic about Weber’s notion of charismatic power. The suggestion that there is an affinity between Weber and Schmitt, between the champion of German liberal democracy at the turn of the Twentieth century (that is, Weber) and the enemy of liberalism on the eve of Nazism (that is, Schmitt) is thus I think still very interesting and insightful not least because it reminds us fundamentally of the historical/theoretical links liberalism and authoritarianism.

In one of your articles you use the debate between Marx and Bauer on the Jewish Question in order to shed light on the French law on conspicuous religious symbols. How can this past discussion help us to grasp better our current reality? Do you see any analogies between the two debates? In this article, you also criticise the universal values of Enlightenment that inform to a certain extent the French legal system. How you do you think we can demonstrate – in this context and regarding this debate – the antinomies of modernity without resorting to a postmodern cultural relativism?

The point I try to make in that article is that the debate on whether Jews should be accorded full political rights in 1840s Prussia presents some striking similarities with the debate on Muslims’ integration into French society today. More precisely, my point is that the French state’s demand that religious minorities (and let’s be frank, Muslims in particular) respect the principle of secularism in the public space is reminiscent of Bruno Bauer’s position on the Jewish Question. Bruno Bauer believed that the Jews deserved to be granted political rights only if they stopped being Jews and embraced Enlightenment thought. In other words, he conceived of political emancipation as a kind of award that individuals receive only if they renounce their own religious identity and embrace the identity that the secular state deems as appropriate. Likewise, the French state demands that Muslims get rid of their religious/cultural practices if they want to show willingness to integrate into French society.

The notion of secularism that is put forward by both Bauer and the French state is one that individualizes secularism, that conceives of it almost as a trait of one’s personality rather than as an institutional issue. In other words, while I do agree that public spaces should not privilege one religion over another – so for instance, class-rooms should not have crucifixes hanging on walls, as happens in Italy – I disagree that individuals should not be allowed to express their religious beliefs in public spaces. This is only one very narrow and problematic version of secularism. But above all, the position according to which the people who belong to a religious and stigmatized minority should deny their religion in order to demonstrate that they deserve the status of citizens is profoundly racist. Just like Bauer was fundamentally an anti-Semite hiding behind the idea of secular Enlightenments, so the French state is reinforcing Islamophobia in the name of laïcité.

By pointing to some analogies between the discussion on Jews’ emancipation in Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century and the discussion on Muslims’ integration in France today I also want to argue that Muslims play the role of todays’ Jews. After the Holocaust we have been accustomed to the idea that the atrocities committed against the Jews have no comparison. But what we should remember is that there is a long history of anti-Jewish racism in Europe which has taken different forms and which has preceded the tragedy of the Holocaust. We should be aware of that history precisely in order to avoid repeating it, not only against the Jews but against any other group of people. My second point in that article is that Marx’s position on the Jewish Question was much more aware than some contemporary Marxists of the dangers of questioning religious minorities’ right to their freedom of expression, and here I think specifically of some French Marxists or Left-wing representatives. During the discussions that led to the ban of the veil in public schools, some of them agreed that Muslim women should not wear it in public spaces and invoked notions of secularism, atheism and women’s rights to justify their position. There is absolutely nothing Marxist in that. When Bruno Bauer blamed the Jews for remaining Jews and thus being undeserving of political rights, Marx told him that political rights can very well co-exist with religious identities. The problem for Marx instead was the bourgeois state itself and its claim of representing a space of universal inclusion while in reality it was only the expression of the exclusion and inequalities of civil society.

Considering the recent developments with the bomb attacks in France, Brussels and the UK, and the emergence of the panic/racist rhetoric and state of emergency policies in these and other countries, what do you think should be the basic rhetorical axes of a counter-hegemonic critique towards their ideological appropriation by the far-right? 

I think it is essential to make very, very clear that these attacks have nothing to do with Islam. The young terrorists who committed these atrocities were born and raised in France or Belgium, or the UK, some of them apparently smoked and drank and did not even attend the Mosque. Most of them were known to the police for petty crimes and some of them apparently found meaning in ISIS ideas while in jail, where they met already radicalized Islamists who introduced them to the abhorrent Daesh dystopia. This reminds me of the French movie A Prophet, in which a young man of Algerian descent, illiterate and with no religious beliefs, is sent to prison for a petty crime. It is in prison that he learns how to kill people and the ‘art’ of drug-dealing. The movie of course is about the violence and ineffectiveness of the so-called correction and punitive system, and also about its racism, given that the large majority of prisoners we see portrayed are of immigrant descent.

But I think the prison in the movie can also be understood as a metaphor for a French or Belgian banlieu, where the second and third generations of migrants from the ex-French colonies have being ghettoized, made to feel different, unwelcome, or jobless and constantly targeted by the racism and Islamophobia of the state and the police – as plenty of studies demonstrate. Within these environments, these social prisons, young people particularly if they are unemployed and without a clear prospect for the future, can develop a great sense of alienation and some of them may feel attracted by the easy Manichaeism of extremist Islamism and its promise of revenge.

The second thing to remember time and time again is that Muslims are the first victims of so-called Islamist terrorism. More than one-third of the people killed by the truck driver in Nice in July 2016 were Muslims, without mentioning the fact that the large majority of victims of ISIS in Syria and Iraq are Muslims. The Left needs to recall this simple and atrocious fact each time the right instrumentalises terrorism to instigate Islamophobia.

But the French Left in particular should also be confronted very seriously with its responsibilities in exacerbating the Islamophobic climate that in France is already intolerable. And here I think of Mélenchon, for instance, who criticized the NPA’s veiled candidate in 2010, Ilham Moussaid, for not taking her headscarf off; more recently, in the case of the outrageous behavior of the police who forced a Muslim woman to undress on a beach in Nice, he took the side of the police. He claims to take these positions in the name of women’s rights and in the name of laïcité. But the reality is that these positions do in fact deny the right Muslim women have to put on whatever clothes they want. They interpret secularism through the lenses of a form of republican rigorism that is fundamentally intolerant of difference and exclusionary towards those who do not embody the French (i.e., white, Christian, etc.,) ideal of the citizen. This republican consensus against the headscarf in France, from right to left, is shameful and irresponsible vis-à-vis the multiplication of terrorist attacks involving young French men and women self-identifing as Muslims.

Of course we need to condemn in the strongest possible terms any form of terrorism, there is no question about it, and in fact I feel there shouldn’t even be the need to say it, if it weren’t for the fact that we live in very crazy times hegemonized by the racist discourse of the right. But above all, we need to say that our politics against terrorism is diametrically opposed to that of the right-wing and is, in fact, more effective because the right has nothing to say about how to solve the problem. The only thing it proposes is to close the borders, stop immigration and intensify Islamophobic measures. But how stupid is that when terrorists are in fact not migrants but French or Belgian, or British citizens? And how irresponsible is that when it is precisely Islamophobia that is creating a climate in which terrorism thrives?

I do think that the fight against Islamophobia and racism is the defining political issue of the future for the Left. We have seen how the capitulation of the European social democracy before anti-immigration discourses in the last fifteen years has not brought more votes to the Left. On the contrary, it has helped the far-right to grow and consolidate its powerbase, at least until recently.

In one volume that you edited along with others you wrote a piece focusing on the theoretical insights of Althusser and Tronti regarding the Marxist question of the relationship between politics and economy. During the last year the global financial crisis gave the opportunity to left-wing forces to come close to winning elections or even – in the case of Syriza – to take office – though withοut really managing to produce any serious cracks in the system. Do you think that a possible explanation of these defeats might be an implicit “politicism” that have been adopted by the parties of the European Left? 

In that article I define ‘politicism’ as the idea that the state is autonomous from economic determinants and that the party is autonomous from its class basis. On the one hand, it is the idea that the state follows its own logic and its own rhythm, and is not simply the “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” – as Marx famously wrote in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. This conception of the state and politics as autonomous from the economic level led Tronti to argue that the party representing the working classes needs to take state power into its hands in order to change the system of economic exploitation itself. On the other hand, Tronti explicitly argued that the party of workers (and clearly he meant the PCI) had to be autonomous from its class basis at the moments in which the political logic of state power demanded that. Here lies an important paradox: on the one hand, by declaring politics and economics as autonomous one from the other, you are claiming that one cannot determine the other; but on the other hand, you are proposing a determinist argument – and therefore denying the autonomy of the political itself – the moment in which you argue that a change in the political realm will automatically determine a change in the social-economic realm. In this sense ‘politicism’ is the mirror image of economic determinism. And both of these perspective are unable to grasp the complexities of the relationships between the state and capitalist interests, or the economic sphere more generally.

The ‘politicist’ perspective was put forward by Tronti in the 1970s during the years of the historical compromise (compromesso storico) in order to support the participation of the Italian Communist Party in government. Tronti criticized the Marxist tradition for lacking a coherent and systematic theory of the state, but what he proposes instead is the old social-democratic trope. That is, the idea that the party representing the interests of the workers needs to take state power to promote the implementation of socialist policies, before communism can finally take over.

The contemporary cases you cite are certainly examples of ‘politicism’ in the sense that these are parties, or political formations that, in various and different ways put forward a social-democratic agenda and overall approach to politics and their working class bases. None of them aims to smash the state, as it were.

However, I don’t think we can talk about defeats pure and simple here. Syriza won the elections, even though it completely betrayed the hopes to end austerity. More recently La France Insoumise obtained 20% of the vote in the first round of the French presidential elections, and in Britain Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has increased Labour’s number of seats and share of vote in unprecedented ways. Of course, these parties and the contexts in which they operate are very different and we cannot abstract from those national differences. What I am trying to say is that the social-democratic Left running for state power in order to change the rules of the economy from above, seems to be actually registering significant advances in electoral terms when it runs on an explicit socialist, anti-austerity programme. The retreat to ‘politicism’, or the idea that the party can forget its working class basis in the name of ‘electability’ and for the sake of staying in government, on the other hand, as in the case of Syriza, will most likely lead to electoral defeat – beside producing demobilization and demoralization.

You edited along with others an issue of Historical Materialism journal that is focused on recent theoretical developments within the Marxist-Feminist tradition. In the introduction that you wrote you endorse Social-Reproduction feminism. Would you be able to explain the origins of this theoretical trend and what it implies? In what ways can it help us to understand the complexity of gender oppression in this historical conjuncture?

Social-reproduction feminism refers to that strand of theories developed by Marxist-feminists in the 1960s and 1970s seeking to understand the role of domestic labour and reproductive tasks within the household for capital accumulation. Social Reproduction Feminism asks: how is the reproduction of labour power and life that usually takes place within households connected to capital accumulation? And why is it women who are mostly the ones performing social reproduction? Is there a link between the feminization of social reproduction and gender oppression under capitalism? By focusing on the largely gendered nature of social-reproductive labour Social Reproduction Feminism also aims to analyse one of the weaknesses of Marxist feminism, that is, its tendency to frame class exploitation and gendered oppression as separate one from the other. The challenge for Social Reproduction Feminism instead is to understand gendered oppression neither in isolation from class exploitation, nor from race, sexuality and other constitutive social relations. This is not an easy task, as our very modes of thinking about the social are fragmented, or intersectional, as it were. That is why, I think, intersectionality has become such an important paradigm for feminism. It is because it conceives of different experiences of oppression and exploitation as coming from different and separate systems and tries to recombine the fragments of oppression without denying their singularity. I think Social Reproduction Feminism seeks to include and to go beyond intersectionality by saying both that we need to understand capitalism as the very specific socio-economic system in which those forms of oppression are generated and nourished, and that there are not ‘separate’ systems of oppression or exploitation under capitalism that can be understood in isolation one from the other.

Social Reproduction Feminism also represents a critique of those Marxist positions that maintain that capitalism is indifferent to the gender or race of those it exploits as long as profit and accumulation are guaranteed. This is a very limited and problematic way of looking at how capitalism functions, but also at what capitalism is. As we write in our introduction, exploitation and dispossession exist concretely “only in and through generalised, systematic and differentiated control and degradation of human life itself. And control and degradation are secured concretely in and through the negotiation of race, gender, sexuality, and other interwoven social relations.” These are the relations that ensure that labour arrives at capital’s doorstep ready to be further dehumanized and exploited.

In your latest book you analyze the instrumentalisation of feminist ideas by the contemporary far-right and mainstream “liberal” parties by means of the term of “femonationalism”. Could you explain what this means and how a critical examination of this phenomenon can be useful?

Femonationalism is the term I have introduced to describe both the exploitation of feminist ideas by nationalist right-wing parties within Islamophobic campaigns, and the endorsement by some feminists and femocrats of anti-Islam agendas in the name of women’s rights. In the book I analyse how and why parties such as the Northern League in Italy, the National Front in France and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands have shown “concern” for Muslim women by describing them as “victims to be rescued”, all the while stigmatising Muslim and other non-western male immigrants as women’s worst enemies. I wrote this book mostly because I wanted to introduce a political-economic perspective into the scholarly and activists’ debate on the new faces of Islamophobia. The convergence between some feminists and nationalists on anti-Islam agendas of course has been noticed and analysed by several scholars, but I think most of them – at least in the European context – have not paid sufficient attention to the broad material interests and economic calculations behind such a convergence.

What I note in the book is that we should pay attention to the gendered double-standard that is applied to migrant men and women (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) in the mainstream media and that we need to decipher its economic rationality alongside its ‘culturalist’ expressions. Muslim men as well as immigrant men from the Global South are usually described not only as potential rapists and women’s oppressors, but also as “jobs’ stealers”. They are the unredeemable bad guys in all senses. On the other hand Muslim and non-western migrant women are portrayed as victims of patriarchal and backward cultures, but also as those who can be assimilated to western values (because, qua women, they don’t really have a mind of their own) and who can positively contribute to western economies by working in the understaffed social reproductive sector (i.e, social care and childcare primarily) for very low wages. They are the redeemable others.

I think this dichotomous gendered representation, or gendered double-standard, which the mainstream media as well as right-wingers use to refer to migrant populations, is central for revealing the political economic rationality of femonationalism. In other words, one of the claims of my book is that the “rescue” offers, which right wing-nationalists send to Muslim women (but also to non-western migrant women more generally), are linked to the hugely important role these women play in the social reproductive economy. But they are also linked to these political parties’ desire to keep the social care and childcare sectors exactly as they are: that is, as racialised, feminized, super-exploitative, low-status and low-paid sectors of the labour market.

On the other hand, the book looks closely at the feminists and femocrats who support anti-Islam politics in the name of women’s rights, and what they propose to Muslim women in particular in their race to rescue them from the “bad” Muslim guys.

What I notice here is that, first, these feminists cover the whole political spectrum; it is not just right-wing feminists (or self-proclaimed feminists like Ayan Hirsi Ali in the Netherlands or Souad Sbai in Italy) who have endorsed anti-Islam discourses and policies such as veil bans, but also left-leaning feminists like Giuliana Sgrena in Italy, or Najat Vallaud-Belkacem in France. Second, I emphasise the deep contradictions of this anti-Islam feminist front. On the one hand, these feminists and femocrats call Islam a misogynist religion and treat Muslim women who wear the veil as sort of self-enslaved individuals who do not understand what freedom and emancipation really are about. On the other hand, these same feminists fail to mention that many Muslim migrant women today in Europe are obliged to undergo integration programmes – sometimes implemented by femocrats themselves – that push them towards the social reproductive sectors to become cleaners, social carers and childminders. But in what sense is this emancipation for women? Weren’t these exactly the activities and jobs against which the feminist movement fought in its battle to denounce gender roles and the lack of economic recognition of social reproduction?