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The Great Replacement Fallacy


Behind Today’s Fascist Chic

Don’t believe the hype. The European far-right is by no means a unified bloc. It’s as ideologically inconsistent as it agrees on immigration and minorities.

African migrants and Italians. Via Nizza,Torino.

But it sounds cohesive precisely because of how much extremists subscribe to hot-button topics that make good headlines, like Great Replacement theory.

Consistently appealed to nationalists like Italian Premier Georgia Meloni and her ministers, who routinely use Identitarian ideas to scapegoat minorities, it’s become today’s fascist chic.

“You can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons,” Arthur Koestler once wrote. He was scolding leftists who opposed Stalinism but refused to join the right in fighting communism.

Populists who fear being replaced by minorities make a similar mistake. The problem isn’t the triumph of one race over another but humanity being eclipsed altogether.

Fear of artificial intelligence (AI), for example, bears all the hallmarks of racism. The power of AI can sound an awful lot like fantasies of Jews controlling the stock market and the media.

But it’s easier to blame the black hats precisely because they’re quantifiable. Technology, of course, is the opposite. It’s an abstraction, particularly when it comes to politics.

The rise of nationalism since the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of our understanding of ourselves as human beings has left politics open to such scenarios.

Europe’s far-right has proved less susceptible than the United States to the blandishments of the Internet’s darker corners, like fears of lizard people and Jewish space lasers.

But nationalism, the sort that would come up with paranoid fantasies of whites being replaced by blacks, remained a constant. It was just tucked away as part of postwar reconstruction.

In Germany, this was part of the larger project of reintegrating the West into the comity of civilised peoples, although the East Germans also sought to appropriate it.

Then there was humanism, which led a protean existence in the 1950s and 1960s.

The recommitment of Europeans to the artistic and scholarly traditions embodied in it represented a path back from the horrors embodied in both Nazism and Stalinism.

Others on both sides of the Cold War divide used humanism as a metonym: shorthand for an ideal human flourishing.

This was particularly rich when applied, as it was often done by leaders and scholars in the German Democratic Republic.

Claims of ideals for human flourishing were always risible when made by Stalinists.

The attempt to attach it to the shabby, down-market version in the GDR exceeded the credulity of all but the modest hardened apparatchik.

Humanism died out in the 1970s. During the Cold War, both sides found ideological props more appropriate to their aims.

At the same time, those of a more intellectual cast began to ask questions (not new but seemingly forgotten in the hubbub of the mid-20th century) about what a human being was anyway.

This critique was especially acute among those associated with structuralism and post-structuralism in France, with figures such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and others taking up the cudgels in favour of antihumanism.

Starting in the 18th century, the only defining feature of the human being was that neither a definitive essence nor an exhaustive description was readily available.

One might be tempted to define the human like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

Sadly, centuries of colonialism and slavery bear witness to the capacity of human beings to look at each other and decide that they are not, in fact, human, but some parahuman entity fit to be shunted aside and/or made into property.

Nationalism resurged in the years since the collapse of “actually existing socialism,” synergising with elite-driven neoliberalism.

With no competing narrative left on the field, membership in the national community could be offered to soften the blow delivered by neoliberal, devil-take-the-hindmost austerity policies.

It is no coincidence that this transformation occurred simultaneously with the ebb tide of the postwar economic boom.

As pressure on profit rates increased in the 1970s and early 1980s, the neoliberal strategy of intensifying exploitation and redirecting productivity increases to the upper castes kept the economic system in Europe and North America from imploding.

The resurgence of radical nationalism in the United States was born in the 1960s when the Republican Party faced two problems.

The first was the need to convince voters in the bottom 80% of the income distribution to vote against their immediate economic interests.

The second was the challenge from the right posed by the unapologetically racist former Alabama governor George Wallace.

The path from Nixon’s “silent majority” to Trumpism was occasionally discontinuous, with the moderate, technocratic wing of the party represented by Bob Dole and George W. Bush fighting a rear-guard action against more extreme elements.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 proved to be the final straw.

Although the Democrats had engaged in a parallel shift to the right, occupying a position close to Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, the election of an African American as president knocked over the Petry dish of the right wing of the Republican Party.

The white nationalism that had been brewing there colonised what was left of the host.

Europe, which likes to think of itself as more civilised (or less crazy) than the United States, passed along a similar path.

Far-right nationalists are active in most European states, and there is a case to be made that the rise of UKIP is analogous to the rise of Trump.

Even in Germany, where the shadow cast by Nazism kept a lid on the far-right into the 1990s, the growing power of nationalist narratives underlay both the rise of Pegida and Alternative für Deutschland and that of more extreme groupuscules like the National Socialist Underground and the Reichsbürger.

The far-right in each country has its particularities. Still, all are committed to what the German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler termed “negative integration”, uniting politically on the basis of joint opposition rather than positive politics.

In this case, the target of the opposition was non-Europeans in general and Muslims in particular.

In the US, migrants from Latin America were added into the mix, with periodically recurring hysteria about “immigrant caravans” (organised by the Catholic Church for added lunatic value).

In the EU, anti-Muslim panic was mixed with the fear of incursions by refugees from the Middle East and Africa and, in Western member states, immigration of Roma from Eastern Europe.

While populist nationalism brews up animus against non-Europeans, various artificial intelligence entities are being fed on the content of the Internet.

Estimates vary as to the proportion of jobs now done by humans that will eventually be taken over by AI capable of being human without actually being so.

AI development is driven by the dynamics of capitalism but understood from a peculiar perspective. The ability of AI to be a long-term driver of prosperity is based on a fallacy of composition.

Capitalism only works if there is adequate demand. Someone has to be buying the stuff that you make. They have to buy it with the wages paid to make other stuff.

In the past, the dependence of production on human labour was justified by two propositions: work was both necessary and virtuous.

People had to work; otherwise, the necessities of survival and comfort would not exist.

But also, work itself was good. The desire to be productive was a good in and of itself. The fact that it dovetailed with the needs of the wealthy was a happy coincidence.

Advancements in artificial intelligence and other automated technologies are in the process of rebutting the first argument.

While humanity may never get to the point that no human labour will be necessary, reducing its necessity by some large proportion will have the same effect.

This leaves us with the larger question of what we are supposed to do with our time. The answer is not only that we have no idea but that we also have no means to get to an idea.

Humanity is on the point of complete fragmentation, as the things that gave human life meaning progressively fall outside the realm of things that require human input for their accomplishment.

The replacement of humans is happening.

The paranoid fantasists of the “Great Replacement” are wrong about who is behind it or who they will be replaced by. But they’re not wrong about the larger replacement process.

Reliance on nationalism as a basis for politics is not the only source of their delusions.

If humanity is to not trundle into irrelevance, the process must start with rethinking who we are and the myriad forces that draw us together, not drive us apart.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.