Elements of Islamophobia: The State, Class and Capital

Elements of Islamophobia: The State, Class and Capital

Islamophobia is the principal means of European aggressive identification, and as Islamophobia spreads, it symmetrically reinforces Islamic fundamentalism.
– Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (2015)

Donald Trump’s recent call to ban American Muslims from entering the United States and to halt all immigration from Muslim majority countries is premised on a larger conspiracy, reminiscent of the infamous ‘Jewish problem’ that stoked rampant anti-Semitism during the first half of the twentieth century. Today’s ‘Muslim problem’ is premised on a similar conspiracy of a secret global network of different coordinated agents including first and foremost the government, progressives, liberals, Muslims, Jews, etc., who are all benefiting from the residuals of the welfare state or ‘hand-out’ culture, while the rest are being left behind. These agents are shattering the cultural bedrock of American life as much as they are the cause of the socio-economic precarity all around us. It is no coincidence that the title of one of the best-selling fiction series over the course of the first 15 years of the 21st century is the apocalyptic and millenarian series Left Behind, which imagines an apocalyptic scenario based on increasing violent conflict in the Middle East. More and more, people are being left behind and someone must be held accountable for it.

The premise of this essay is that today’s intensification of Islamophobia must be understood and diagnosed primarily, but not exclusively, as the outcome of capitalist exploitation. We will examine two Marxist theoretical models that account for racism and its ambiguous handmaiden of fascism, what I name the ‘failed revolutionary’ and the ‘projection of resentment’ models. In both models, racism is understood broadly as the result of capitalist exploitation and its functioning is based on the necessity to conceal exploitation. Neoliberalism, over the last thirty years, has brought on the collapse of the welfare state, a decline in real wages, and the rise of an ever-growing precarious class of surplus labor, or people excluded from work. Its effects on social life and satisfaction have been significant as large swaths of baby boomer populations are now dying prematurely from this precarity (Khazan, 2015).

In Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous essay, “Elements of Anti-Semitism” from the Dialectic of Enlightenment, they argued anti-Semitism is driven primarily as a result of the division of labor under capitalism and the way that fascist and totalitarian responses to capitalist exploitation develop a projection that conceals their misery. Their thesis of anti-Semitism sees bigotry and racism as a potentiality inherent within modern social and political conditions, and not as a reaction to those processes. This distinction is important as it means that as new historical conditions of capitalism, mainly modes of production shift, racism itself shifts. The interesting consequence of this structural view is that it enables us to first diagnose racism and its effects at the level of the structural shifts of capitalist development and modes of production.

The second part of Adorno and Horkheimer’s thesis is that the fascist psychological makeup is based on a projection. This analysis is less reliable as it puts forward a fairly static psychological profile of the fascist individual which may not stand the test of time, i.e., the first aspect to their theory of anti-Semitism gives us hints regarding the coordinates of how racism (in the form of anti-Semitism) is related to the system of capitalist exploitation. But they fail to effectively link the psychological analysis of the bigoted and racist individual to this structural account in a compelling or convincing manner. Regardless of this deficiency, let us continue to outline their argument. They claim that anti-Semitism is based on a false projection, wherein the repressed individual projects a pathic character trait onto the imaginary object of the Jew.

The compulsively projecting self can project nothing except its own unhappiness, from the cause of which, residing in itself, it is yet cut off by its lack of reflection. For this reason the products of false projection, the stereotyped schemata of both thought and reality, bring calamity. For the ego, sinking into the meaningless abyss of itself, objects become allegories of ruin, which harbor the meaning of its own downfall (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; p.158).

The Jews are not simply the scapegoat for the psychological damages brought on by capitalist exploitation; the representation of the Jew becomes the screen upon which a pathic personality projects its resentment in general. The figure of the Jew is the screen upon which the anti-Semites project their own resentment to capitalist exploitation. But this resentment takes new forms which consists in a “desperate exertion by an ego which, according to Freud has a far weaker resistance to internal than to external stimuli.” Adorno and Horkheimer’s psychological analysis of the racist personality would be even more developed by Adorno in his theory of the authoritarian personality, however for our purposes, the psychological analysis of racism and bigotry is helpful insofar as it points to a subject-less condition. As Adorno and Horkheimer note, Anti-Semitic behavior is “unleashed in situations in which blinded people, deprived of subjectivity, are let loose as subjects” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; p. 140). We must now turn to the conditions by which subjectivity is let loose in our contemporary situation.

The Clash Regime, the State and Governmentality

The paradoxical function of fascism, as Adorno and Horkheimer observe, is that it places oppressed nature (or dejected subjectivity) into a rebellion against domination, but this rebellion is simultaneously placed in the service of domination. In today’s situation of western Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism, we notice that the far right populist and anti-immigrant groups tend to see themselves as lock step in a master slave dialectic with the Islamist organizations themselves. This rhetorical mimicry is what Islamic scholar Arshin Abdid-Moghaddam refers to as the ‘clash-regime’, which,

“[R]efers to an inter-subjective system that is hybrid and sociopathic. It is hybrid because there is no formal – psychological, syntactical and methodological – boundary between the clash disciples. They speak the same language with two accents. And it is sociopathic because its constituent agents seem autonomous, but only because they attempt to artificially isolate their selves from any impingement by the other, so that all they allow themselves to know about them is their ‘otherness’” (Abdid-Moghaddam, 2008; p.276).

The clash regime is composed of two larger warring cliques: the Islamophobia network – a growing right-wing populist reactionary neo-Fascist network, and radical Islamist terrorist organizations. Both groups fight desperately for media amplification and organizational resources, and remain locked in a competition with one another at the level of signs, ideas and media. They exert an undue influence on the ‘mainstream’ culture, leading to the proliferation of misinformation about Islam and a skewed vision of European and American treatment towards the immigrant and the foreigner.

The clash regime starts from the position of identity struggles for recognition as opposed to waging protests at other forms of social and political degradation such as the exploitation of workers or the impact of austerity measures on social precarity. As such, my claim in this essay is that to understand Islamophobia today, it must be analyzed from a failed set of political demands coming out of the misery of increasing social and political precarity. This is in many ways no different than the oft-quoted mantra that ‘every fascism is the sign of a failed revolution’. What is labeled the ‘Muslim problem’ is a code word for a neo-racist and neo-fascist screen upon which far right groups project their own resentment at rising social precarity. The clash regime, which is proliferated by the explosion of media attention on the barbaric acts of ISIS, provides a temporary rationale for this channeling of projection.

What is missed in analyses of these neo-fascist groups is the way in which they support the logic of the state, despite their outward critique of the state and big government. Given that the primary arena of contestation that the clash regime operates on is media: signs and symbols, as opposed to contestations at the site of material production, exploitation, or worker struggle, the state is not sufficiently critiqued. The state is an imaginary enemy as well as the object of nationalist value that must be fought for tooth and nail. Thus, what the state has achieved with the clash regime is a re-channeling of populist energy and rhetoric towards ultra militant adherence to its imperial project and a re-direction of this rage towards an outward enemy.

This process of enacting civil society agents into the project of the state is what Foucault refers to as governmentality, or a state-based strategy of bio power. Governmentality is a set of deployments of the state that draws upon the relative decline of the enlightenment narrative that places man as a universal creature only contingently divided by ethnicity, culture or race (Brown, 2006; p. 79). Governmentality harnesses individual, communal, and international civic forces that might otherwise be anarchic and self-destructive towards a collective project of the state. It governs the “conduct of conduct”, the operations and applications, from individuals to mass populations and from particular parts of the body and psyche. Far from being restricted to rule and law, governmentality works through a range of visible and invisible accountable social powers, of which the best example is pastoral power (Foucault, 1991; p. 95). Governmentality employs and infiltrates a number of discourses ordinarily seen as unrelated to political power, and masks them as a political tool. Governmentality is a crucial concept for understanding the clash regime and neo-fascism as it deals with the way in which the state administers public life, and how that administration is externally linked to the knowledge’s and discourses that govern outside the rubric and purview of the state. Governmentality not only governs subjects, but it shores up the legitimacy of the state, and in so doing, expands state power.

These movements harness the power of the state all the while openly critiquing the state. How then are we to understand the paradoxical status of the state in its contemporary context? In contrast to the Althusserian analysis that holds the state to be the site and nexus of the ruling class Pierre Bourdieu thinks the state as a field that creates the market. The Althusserian thesis, which maintains the state is the hegemonic position of the ruling class, misses the way that structure itself functions. The state, for Bourdieu, consists of a set of agents (bureaucrats, citizens, etc.) that build a field of power using capital. By combining Foucault’s and Bourdieu’s analysis of the state, we find that the state is both able to survive and adapt to competing contestations to its ever-failing universality, by managing to include different forms of particularism under its canopy (Foucault) and we understand the state as a field of power directed by capital. Bourdieu claims that the institutions of the state are “organized fiduciary institutions endowed with automatism” (Bourdieu, 2014; p. 37). The growth of the clash regime and neo-fascist movements that ambiguously challenge the hegemony of the state but ultimately fail to challenge it in any real sense is just an indication that the status of the state is strong under neoliberalism, not weak. A state that could only tolerate limited dissent under say the cold war era was much weaker in fact than today’s globalized state, which depends more and more on totalized surveillance of its citizenry.

My thesis thus far is that the persistence and growth of nativist and right-wing movements are paradoxical in that they protest the state, but get caught up in inertia of the state, and are driven by the social division of labor and increasing social exclusions brought on by neoliberal policies that have brought on rising socio-economic precarity. What does the Marxist analysis of racism tell us about the way that these movements function? My first proposal is that racism is a response to the violent and conflictual split at the level of the social relations sowed by the division of labor. Building off of Étienne Balibar’s analysis of contemporary racism, or what he terms ‘neo-racism,’ the division of labor functions as the primary means by which societies or social formations are kept alive, forming relatively durable units simply by virtue of the fact that they organize production and exchange in terms of certain historical relations (Balibar, 1996; p. 7). Racism is thus an institutionalization of the hierarchies involved in the worldwide division of labor (Balibar, 1996; p. 9). Importantly, what Balibar’s analysis shows is that contemporary racism has shifted its frame of reference from biological racism of the nineteenth and early twentieth century to cultural racism, where the dominant theme is not racial superiority, but one based on cultural differences.

Two Marxist Models: Failed Revolutionary and Projection of Resentment

In our contemporary era of cultural racism, how does the division of labor and class function apropos racism? In the nineteenth and early 20th century era of biological racism, Marxist philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote a seminal 1947 essay on Anti-Semitism, entitled “Elements of Anti-Semitism,” wherein we find some indications about this relation. While Adorno would focus his work on the anti-Semite individual and psychologize what he called the ‘authoritarian personality,’ his earlier theory of anti-Semitism in “Elements of Anti-Semitism,” co-written with Horkheimer, provides a theory for how anti-Semitism has a specific economic purpose: to conceal domination in production. Under capitalism, exploitation must remain a socially necessary illusion, and as such, fascism functions as a concealing of capitalist exploitation.

Anti-Semitic behavior is “unleashed in situations in which blinded people, deprived of subjectivity, are let loose as subjects” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; p. 140). Anti-Semites gather to celebrate the moment when authority lifts the ban; that moment alone makes them a collective, constituting them as a community of kindred spirits. This orgiastic celebration of authority is paradoxical in that it seeks to place the oppressed nature of the subject-less individual into rebellion against domination, but paradoxically, that rebellion is placed directly in the service of domination (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; p. 152). In other words, fascism succeeds by sidestepping the source of domination from the site of class and the division of labor, by forming a paranoid personality around the figure of the Jew who becomes an alternative site to project the resentment from the suffering the subject undergoes in capitalism.

What makes anti-Semitism a veil for the domination of the division of labor and the capitalist circulation is the way that it captures dejected subjectivity and provides a new site where the its calamities can be projected. The subject-less self sinks into its own ego, as a ‘meaningless abyss of itself,’ where ‘objects become allegories of ruin, which harbor the meaning of its own downfall (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002; p. 158). The objects of its downfall become a certain representation of the Jew, which makes the anti-Semitism based in a paranoid, one-step removed hallucination of the Jew. Thus, the Jew or the Muslim is a screen upon which the bigoted individual projects his or her own resentment, but this resentment has little to do with the Jew or the Muslim per se. If Adorno and Horkheimer were to write about the Donald Trump phenomenon, they would see in his rallies and hate speech a fascistic communal acting out, a celebration of “when authority permits what is usually forbidden.” This celebration of a socially transgressive act is both a support for authority and a protest against a perceived loss of authority.

The other model of Marxist analysis of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is found in what we will name the ‘failed revolutionary thesis’. This model maintains that the primary social antagonism, mainly class conflict, becomes externalized onto the figure of the Jew, the Arab or Muslim. So where Adorno and Horkheimer contend that the representation of the Jew or the Muslim serves as a stand-in for the resentment of the subject undergoing capitalist exploitation, the failed revolutionary thesis sees the representation of the Jew or Muslim as functioning as a different type of concealment, mainly that of class conflict itself. In an early critique of Althusser by Alain Badiou, entitled Of Ideology, Badiou writes that in the dominant ideology, there exists an irrepresentable practice (the revolutionary class revolt) that ideology is intelligible as a representation.

The dominant ideology’s third procedure is the externalization of the antagonism: to the supposedly unified body politic [corps social] a term “outside of class” [hors-classe] is opposed, and posited as heterogeneous: the foreigner (chauvinisme), the Jew (anti-Semitism), the Arab (racism), etc. The procedures of transference are themselves riveted [chevillées] over an exasperation of the principal contradiction (Badiou, 2013).

The Jew or Muslim thus stands for the inability of the fascist movement to think praxis, to confront the monstrosity of class itself. Badiou’s idea gives new meaning to the oft-quoted mantra that ‘every fascism is a sign of a failed revolution’, which should be revised to state: ‘every fascism relies on an externalized point of antagonism outside of class’ – and this point is embodied in the racism exerted onto the Jew or Muslim. The function of anti-Semitism is thus really no different at the level of its ideological operation as both forms of racism function to conceal the way in which the sphere of circulation and its exploitation remains a socially necessary illusion. What’s more is that this concealing is a concealment of class struggle itself. In Žižek’s analysis, we find a similar thesis to that of Badiou:

What happens in the passage from the position of strict class struggle to fascist anti-Semitism is not just a simple replacement of one figure of the enemy (the bourgeoisie, the ruling class) with another (the Jews); the logic of the struggle is totally different. In the class struggle, the classes themselves are caught up in the antagonism which is inherent to the social structure, while in anti-Semitism the Jew is conceived as a foreign intruder that causes the social antagonism, so that all we need to do in order to restore social harmony is annihilate the Jews” (Žižek, 2014; p. 201)


Racism, in the form of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, has distinct signifiers that associate the figure of the Muslim or the Jew differently, and both forms of racism arise out of different historical genealogies of power. The two models I have presented each contend that Islamophobia must be understood at the level of a breakdown in conceptualizing class conflict. What breaks down, specifically with the rise of fascism, is the very possibility of a revolutionary subjectivity itself. In the failed revolutionary model, the Jew or Muslim functions as a stand-in, or we might say a symptom of the failure to think revolutionary subjectivity. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s projection of resentment model, the Jew or Muslim is a stand-in, a projection based on a general sense of resentment – and this resentment is not exclusively an outcome of class and exploitation.

In the two models I have presented, the displaced representation of the Jew or Muslim remains highly malleable, i.e., it shifts and changes and could very well be occupied by other ‘out-groups’, which just as easily might include Gypsies, Mexicans or ethnic groups. The biggest potential weakness to these models is their inherent malleability and their view that racism functions in an almost arbitrary sense because in all cases it is the outcome of certain structural characteristics of the capitalist system itself: division of labor and exploitation. But the malleability of these models is valuable as it enables us to address the structural emergence of racism in the form of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in a reliable manner.


Abdid-Moghaddam, A. (2008) A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilizations, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011

Adorno, T., Horkheimer, M. (2002) Dialectic of Enlightenment Elements of Anti-Semitism, translated by Edmund Jephcott. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press

Badiou, A. (2013) Of Ideology trans. by Z.L. Fraser https://www.scribd.com/doc/47747975/Of-Ideology

Balibar, E. (1996) Race, Nation, Class Ambiguous Identities, New York, NY: Verso Books

Berardi, F. (2015) Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide New York, NY: Verso Books

Bourdieu, P. (2014) The State: Lectures at the College de France: 1989 – 1992, Mladen, MA: Polity Press

Brown, W. (2006) Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Foucault, M., (1991) “Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press

Khazan, O. (November 4th, 2015) “Middle-Aged White Americans are Dying of Despair”. The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/11/boomers-deaths-pnas/413971/

Žižek, S. (2014) Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism New York, NY: Verso Books

Daniel Tutt is a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Outreach Director of Unity Productions Foundation.

This article was originally published by the Healthwood Institute Press. See the original here.