At the core of the idea of citizenship is the refugee: Homi Bhabha on Democracy for the 21st Century

Homi Bhabha was the perfect person to talk to about the outcome of the U.S. election – a scholar of multiculturalism with a keen eye for the power structures in discourse and in reality and an observer who lives in the country for a long time now but has kept his perspective as an outsider, born in India and endowed with a very distinct world-view. He sat down with Georg Diez – remotely in these Corona times – to discuss Trump, Kamala Harris, the Latino vote and the fate of the refugee as the starting point to rethink our concept of citizenship.

Homi Bhabha, we are here to talk about the future of democracy. What are the lessons from the U.S. election?

There are two selves in this nation and they're at war with each other. This is more complex than the now ubiquitous discourse of polarization that assumes that there are two parties, two sets of political belief merely opposed to each other and marked by a bright dividing line. Polarization is a binary way of thinking. I don't think that the contradictions in the country today are best diagnosed as binary; the cracks in the democratic landscape are seismic and unpredictable. That’s why the pollsters find it so difficult to map the conflict of public electoral intentions in order to predict accurate electoral outcomes. When a Republican votes along party lines for a Republican senator while casting a presidential vote for a Democrat, then the soul of the nation is bi-polar rather than simply polarized.

Can you explain that?

The country is puzzled, standing at the crossroads. And when people are in a state of anxiety and ambivalence, without a participatory sense of what exists as the “common good”, or what it might be, they then become playthings of prevailing political leaders, the popular media, and the “free-for-all” assertions of social media. Conspiracy theories, fabricated videos, memes, rumors – these are signs of the discursive and political freefall that we are witnessing in the US and in many other countries that have elected ethno-nationalist governments. When frivolous legal claims, with little or no merit, can be daily executed to delay the democratic transition of power, then the raison d’être of the democratic project is deliberately and decisively placed in peril. What seems to be a violation of political rationality and public reason, is also a symptom of the “psycho-affective” abuse – to use Frantz Fanon’s term – to which the mood and mores of the people is unfairly subjected.

What are the two selves at war with each other?

This is a country whose great democratic experiment has been based on two things. One, on slavery, genocide and annihilation of black people, of native Americans as well as a fear of minorities and dissidents. On the other hand, this is a country whose strength has been in histories of migration. The democratic promise has been the promise of migration. Today, the country no longer sees migration as a strength. There is an attempt to demonize the very elements of the democratic experiment.

The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates called Donald Trump the „first white president“. What was the role of race, ethnicity, gender in this election?

I am a non-identitarian. That doesn't mean that I think that identity issues are unimportant. Of course, they are. Knowing yourself, knowing the other. But instead of talking about political identities, I am much more interested in political interests.

How do interests differ from identity?

Are the equitable interests of a Black member of the LGBTQ community in Chicago equivalent to those of a black person from Georgia who is part of a heteronormative culture with deep religious roots? They may see their representational interests differently in terms of gender, faith and region, while both individuals suffer the shared indignities and inequalities of institutional and individual racism. When we move from identity to interests, we begin to see that life-choices fit together in a collective condition of co-existence like a mosaic – the pieces of a mosaic fit together not because they resemble each other but because they complement each other, as Walter Benjamin said. We can discern many more networks of affiliation, as well as fronts of resistance and opposition, when we see the multicultural world as a mosaic of social interests, rather than a portrait-gallery of group identities. Out of these different interests, we can reshape our own notion of rights and responsibilities as citizens or as residents.

A lot of people seemed surprised that Donald Trump gained votes among both Black and Latino. What is your take on this?

When we displace the language of identity with interests and articulate interests with solidarities and affiliation, we begin to understand why there may have been a surprising division of race in the vote. Trump’s masculinist bravado, expressed as an audacious desire to achieve success at all costs, may seem attractive to those who face the greatest odds in succeeding at all. Trump’s image as a TV celebrity is often mistaken as success. As a businessman, as we know, he has been mired in bankruptcies and alleged illegalities. However, for some struggling men from these communities he may well provide a façade of invincibility – a way for them to clutch on to his coattails when he is in fact dragging these very communities to their eventual doom. The appeal of Trump’s celebrity may be a defense mechanism that provides a pugnacious mask that obscures their burden of oppression and failure. He fuels a desire for unrealistic magical thinking which our privilege prevents us from fully understanding. Put this in context, his refusal to acknowledge his failed election leads him to resort to the magical thinking of filing endless legal challenges that have little chance of succeeding.

In a profound way, there was a battle between the old and the new in this election. What does that tell us about the future of maybe not only American democracy?

But what is the old? Is it Donald Trump representing that American figure of the tyrannical tycoon or robber baron, tyrannical within the institutions of capitalism and business, at other times tyrannical politically? This is one old image of America. The other one is of a kind of seasoned centrist democratic belonging to a much older generation, the oldest president ever in the United States, a man who has had many past lives, but who does represent a more centrist bipartisan position.

You are referring to Joe Biden. He and Kamala Harris are the old and the new on one ticket.

In America, the autobiography is always political. Biden‘s narrative as an Irish migrant is not equivalent to the Latino migrant. But it is a mixed story. Overall, he represents the liberalism of the post-civil-rights movement with all its problems. Kamala Harris of course is the first woman as well as the first person of color to be vice president-elect.

Her biography is very interesting or as you say very political.

Indeed, a woman of Indian and Caribbean background. Her father from Jamaica, her mother from India, both academics and activists. The parents divorce and the South-Indian mother brings up her girls in a nest of ideas and aspirations affiliated with African-American life-worlds of struggle and emancipation. Her identification with Black politics and culture is a constructive identification based on political interests and ethical principles. Your heritage is only as good as your ability to translate it into ideals, ideas and actions that drive the multiple directions you take and the choices you make.

There was an interesting piece in the “Guardian” comparing Kamala Harris and Barack Obama, whose father was a radical economist from Kenya, just as Harris’s father was a radical economist from Jamaica. Both Obama and Harris are much more moderate than their fathers. But especially looking ahead to 2024 and beyond: Is the post-colonial story going to shape the American project?

I think one has to be aware of it, but one also has to be cautious. We have to judge Obama and Harris on the positions they take, the choices they make, and the interests that they represent rather than on their familial heritage. What i find intriguing and exciting is that, in both cases, a postcolonial provenance has been so closely identified with a Black American heritage of civil rights and social justice. All this could have worked out quite differently. There are postcolonial politicians in the USA, like former UN Ambassador Nikki Hailey who is a Trumpian Republican and has an Indian Sikh heritage. Nikki Hailey chose to keep silent when asked about Trump’s dangerous tantrums after he lost the election.

How much do you think Kamala Harris’ worldview was shaped by her biography?

Her political education in America has shaped her commitments to anti-racism, criminal justice, and social welfare. Her sentimental education was shaped by a pioneering and progressive South Indian migrant mother. The arc of this experience provides Harris with many bridges by which to connect the USA to the postcolonial world. Such a perspective would be in step with some of the greatest African American writers and thinkers: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, of course the great W.E.B Du Bois. They were profoundly interested in establishing political, historical and ethical relations between the United States and the International community, based on anti-racist and postcolonial aspirations. There has to be a way of thinking of a politics of the future where people “at home” and people “on the move” can be accommodated in states of equality and dignity. There is a lesson here for a radical cosmopolitan future.

How do you define radical cosmopolitanism?

In my work, I call it vernacular or minoritarian cosmopolitanism – a cosmopolitanism that takes its tone from the everyday existential exigencies and political interests of displaced and diasporic peoples. Xenophobia and ethno-nationalism create false walls between internationally displaced peoples and nationally disadvantaged populations. When jobs are shuttered and homes repossessed, when work disappears and the lights go out on Main Street, at that point you are a displaced person although you haven’t moved an inch from the place in which you may have spent your entire life.

This is very different from the common notion of cosmopolitanism.

Which is actually a cosmopolitanism of the élites, of the privileged, of those who can speak five languages and live in any country that they want by virtue of their credit cards and their multiple passports. Let us learn the lessons of vernacular, minority cosmopolitanism from the Sudanese doctor who is now a taxi driver in New York. Or the highly trained Syrian engineer who survives as a hospital, orderly wheeling patients into the operating theater. The majority of refugees and migrants are cosmopolitan in a very tragic sense: they are displaced from one country to another, from one camp to another, with the border-police at their backs. And yet they have a profound sense of what it means to survive without sovereignty and maintain a measure of integrity and hope in the face of the denial of agency and authority. And they attempt to build their new lives, in foreign countries and within cultures of difference, by engaging with bewildering legal norms and strange social customs they encounter. This is a form of minoritarian cosmopolitanism that manifests a political will to establish neighborly relations in traumatic and challenging conditions. It is only legally right and morally proper that this will to neighborliness should be reciprocated by host societies extending a right to hospitality.

Could this even be the starting point of how to think about and build a truly multi-ethnic democracy? What is the binding element then?

The binding element that increasingly fades from our view is a representative and recognizable “common good”. Not a coercive, assimilationist common good, but a binding element that creates opportunities for the convergence of diverse interests and differential identifications. The role of humanistic education is crucial in the cultivation of a binding element. I talk about the word “convergence” because it doesn’t entail imposed order or enforced consensus. Convergence assumes that ideas have different origins, opinions have conflicting sources, beliefs attach to plural perspectives, and communities exist in life-worlds of historical specificity. To converge around a democratic agenda is to negotiate policies for a shared and negotiated project over a certain length of time. Too often, political principles are framed in universalist terms that everybody piously accepts and then they violate them in the interests of national sovereignty.

What is necessary to get to that understanding of a common good?

In multicultural and multi-ethnic societies, we have to build a curriculum that prepares us for the complex tasks of recognizing the creative possibilities of the differences amongst diverse demographic and ethnic groups. The social experience of political change is often experienced as “flux” or “transition”. Societies that engage with “differences” do not homogenize of appropriate “otherness”. Toleration is commendable, but it is an insufficient ethic of identification. Let me put it like this: we talk a great deal about “the good society” and spend much of our time lauding “social virtue.” This is necessary. In a complex post-colonial world, beset by the displacement of peoples for a whole host of structural and geopolitical reasons, we are compelled to commit ourselves to civil rights and human rights. But that is not all. Migration and displacement demand that we create a pedagogy of civility and hospitality that engages with the vulnerability that we see in the current world-order, where civility and barbarism are bi-polar aspects that exist within the democratic project. This is Hannah Arendt’s closing argument in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

What is the consequence for the democracy of the future?

It is in the fissures of the global experiment that democracy is being shaped. It is being shaped in the inequalities, the unevenness of what we see as a global moment. And in that moment, we need to get away from the majoritarian ideas of ethno-nationalism – what Hannah Arendt described in her book on totalitarianism as the majority that is made to feel like the victimized minority. Populists are encouraged to fight back against the most unequal members of society from the centers of power and the margins of social media. In some counties democratic dissent is treated as sedition against the state. What a ludicrous reversal of fortune!

What is your answer to this challenge?

We need to restructure the laws and norms of citizenship. There are over 75 million displaced people in the world – displaced by climate change, tyranny, civil war, economic hardship, and reckless, long-lasting wars. These people who do not have a nation, but they are a global population and deserve the moral rights, human rights, economic rights, legal rights and social rights, that any national citizen can access. At the moral center of the security of citizenship falls a shadow of the insecurity of the refugee. At the heart of citizenship is the predicament of the refugee.

How does this democracy for the 21st century?

Citizenship needs to be radically rethought from the core. At the core of the ethical imperative of citizenship is the person who has no rights and little social standing, despite important legal provisions. Racialized citizens across the nations of the world may have legal rights but they are frequently denied the ethical rights of public recognition. You are only as free as you believe yourself to be when you can gather at will in the public square, or return home in the dark, secure in the knowledge that you won’t be arrested on the unsubstantiated charge of “suspicious loitering.” We seem to have forgotten that this is the moral and ethical core of the citizen’s right to free and secure movement. The political and legal securities that citizenship provides at its best, are built around the matrix of what it means to be right-less and stateless, and how to avoid that powerless predicament. If the citizen has “standing”, the refugee is often left lying by the wayside, or abject in the refugee camp. This is where the moral compass points in the difficult and dissonant world which we inhabit today.

(The interview was edited for length and clarity. You can watch the recording of the whole conversation here.)

| stay informed | stay connected


What is happening at THE NEW INSTITUTE? Step inside by following our institutional newsletter, which ties together the work of our fellows and programs, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.


We use cookies to measure how often our site is visited and how it is used. You can withdraw your consent at any time with effect for the future. For further information, please refer to our privacy policy.