Green light – An artistic workshop
The Rise of Contemporary Autochthonic Political Projects of Belonging
Nira Yuval-Davis

The radical changes that we have seen not only in Britain, with the Brexit referendum, and on the European continent but also in other places are the result of interacting processes that are happening all over the globe. There are local as well as more general conditions that are contributing to these developments. To analyze this, I would like to introduce the term autochthony, which Peter Geschiere defines as the global “return of the local.”[1] While the “old” racism basically constructed the Other as essentially racially different and the “new” racism constructed her/him as essentially culturally different, autochthony is a racializing discourse that, like other forms of racism, uses origin, culture, and religion as signifiers of immutable boundaries. Its focus, however, is on spatial and territorial belonging, the building of communities based on what Manuel Castells called “defensive identity,” except that these days it often applies to majoritarian as well as minoritarian community discourses.[2]


Autochthonic Politics


Some of the politics that we see now in Europe and on the other side of the globe, which can be called autochthonic politics, are different from other extreme-right politics. One of the interesting things is that many of these autochthonic political organizations take pride in telling us that they are not racist. Indeed, rather than using notions of “race,” as earlier forms of racist ideology did during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these movements construct racialized boundaries that differentiate people according to those who belong and those who do not, using a wide variety of boundary signifiers, including origin, religious affiliation, and citizenship status.


Autochthonic politics are thus very elastic. The only common message is “We were here before you, and therefore we belong and you do not!” Adherents to these kinds of politics can pretend that they are not racist, and their ranks can indeed include people who are themselves from racial or sexual minorities and other groups traditionally excluded by other racist ideologies: for example, the British Defense League has had Jewish, Irish, and even Afro-Caribbean members.


Autochthonic politics are a particular type of political project of belonging. As I argued in my 2011 book The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations, there is a need to differentiate between “belonging” and the “politics of belonging.” While belonging is about feeling safe, feeling entitled to particular rights and roles, it is composed of emotional, cognitive, and normative dimensions. The politics of belonging are the political project, which constructs these feelings of belonging around particular collectivities and around particular signifiers of belonging. Within this project, political actors construct the boundaries, reproduce them, and maintain them, and of course they also contest them. These contestations can, for example, include questioning whether a Jew can be a German, a black can be British, or a Muslim can be European. And of course some political projects of belonging can have more permeable boundaries than others. For example, when the British politician Enoch Powell declared in 1968 that a West Indian baby born in London does not become English, this was an absolute, impermeable boundary that depended on racial origin, on skin color. But then there is a different kind of an assimilatory political project of belonging that says, “You can belong to us if you forget that you have a different culture, a different religion, or a different language.” This is also a political project of belonging that differentiates between those who belong and those who do not, but it is more permeable because people come to be seen as part of the local community even when they retain elements of their different identities and cultural practices.


The Double Crisis of Governability and Governmentality


I would argue that the recent rise of autochthonic politics of belonging that is affecting so much of global, European, and local politics relates to what I have called the double crisis of governability and governmentality.[3] The “crisis of governability” refers to the extent to which and the form in which governments can rule since the rise of neoliberal globalization.


There has been plenty of discussion about the effects of neoliberal globalization on the increase in economic polarization, or income inequality. There is a lot of talk about the 1 percent versus the rest. How is it possible that neoliberal globalization and deregulation have brought about so much accumulation that 1 percent can control most of the resources in the world? What is less talked about is the distribution of wealth between states and multinationals. If you combine the economic power of all the states in the world and their resources, already a few years ago it was between $60 and $70 trillion. If you combine the economic resources of all the multinationals, the total is $600 to $700 trillion. In other words, the economic power of multinationals is about ten times more than that of all the governments of all the states in the world, which includes the United States, China, Great Britain, Germany, and other wealthy nations. This means that the relative power of states versus multinationals has changed enormously. Interestingly, historically this has been the result of the Limited Liability Act and the Companies Act in the US, which defines the limited company (ltd) and the limited liability of shareholders. Originally, when the application came before a court in the United States, there was a very small majority that agreed to this transformation. The court agreed to the proposal believing that it would facilitate economic development. Of course it has because it means that there is no personal risk for the people who run the various economic endeavors, because if they fail, it is not their liability. Moreover, if they fail and if there is a change in conditions in the local market—we are living in a time that Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity”[4]—then they just move elsewhere and continue to develop their own resources and their own wealth. Meanwhile the local people and local government are left with all the costs of the failure: whether those costs are human, ecological, environmental, or in any other form, they have to bear them!


Moreover, what has been happening as a result of governments’ focus on attempting to attract and retain powerful companies in order to maintain the economic activities within the state’s sovereign areas is that we now have a situation in the last decade or two in which the multinationals have turned to cash in on this surplus value that has been the state itself, the welfare state. We have seen the privatization of more and more branches of the state in more and more countries. It was like selling the collective silver of the state by privatizing many parts of the economy, giving control to companies that are not owned by people who come from the same state.


In addition to this development, you see an entanglement of the private and public domains so that it is no longer possible to separate them. This is one of the main reasons why after the crisis of 2008 the state used taxpayers’ money to salvage the banks, because there was such an entanglement between the resources of the state and private resources that they could not allow the banks to fail in the way that they did in the 1920s because it would go the heart of the economic life of the state itself.


The other side effect of neoliberalism is that the governing role of the state is not to respond to citizens’ needs but is about interacting with these companies as well as with other transnational and supranational organizations, like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, while at the same time the legislative branches of these states become less and less effective. First of all, with the privatization of the state, they have less and less to do. In a way this has created a growing distance between elected governments, especially elected parliaments, and the citizen. And this leads to the other aspect of this double crisis, which is the crisis of governmentality. Neoliberalism has attempted to create and support—and others have expanded on it—a type of governmentality in which the citizens will cease to expect their state to provide for them and will try to take responsibility for their lives. If they are not successful, it is their responsibility. If they fail, if they are unemployed, it is because something is wrong with them rather than with the system. Of course there is a pivotal point at which people stop buying this! What they come to realize is that it is the system, the government, the society, and however they vote, the government will still do more or less the same things—for the reasons already mentioned relating to the crisis of governability. So they stop voting, they stop caring about what is happening in the state, and they turn to other forms of engagement and other forms of alienation. This crisis is not happening only in Europe, and in some ways, because of its affluent societies, the effects are less manifest there than in other, non-European countries. But even within Europe there are very sharp differences between different states.


Citizenship and Belonging


The notion of “the citizen,” unlike that of “the subject,” is usually marked by at least a certain sense of entitlement, an important public emotion that is crucial in various political projects of belonging. There are major kinds of rights that have been commonly associated with citizenship: civil, political, social, cultural, and what I call spatial security rights.


Spatial security rights can be seen as an important bridge between those who are citizens and those who are not but who are under the control of a particular state. Spatial security rights include the right to enter the territory of a state, to remain there, to work and/or study there—in short, to plan a future in a more or less secure manner. The right to spatial security is threatened these days not only among documented or undocumented “people on the move” (to use the words of Kofi Annan, the previous secretary-general of the United Nations). Part of neoliberal governmentality is to remove from most people their expectations, let alone guarantees, of long-term employment in the same place or even in the same kind of work, having regular holidays and sufficient funds in their pension to live on when they retire. Other elements of the “risk society” follow, including housing and place of residence, networks of friends, and even membership in a family unit. All of these push people into membership in defensive identity movements, either ethnic or religious. These anxieties among majoritarian members of the society are also important for policy makers, who are using the deprivation of migrants' and refugees' rights as an easy way to appease these anxieties and to reinforce a weakening sense of national cohesion. The basic underlying political issues here, however, concern what the boundaries of belonging are and to what extent the construction of “us” versus “them” in this debate continues to be naturalized.


The politics of belonging involve not only constructions of boundaries but also the inclusion or exclusion of particular people, social categories, and groupings within these boundaries by those who have the power to control this. Symbolic powers are of crucial importance when we deal with political projects of belonging, although they are often the focus of contestation and resistance.


In order to understand some of the contestations involved in different constructions of belonging promoted by different political projects of belonging, we need to look at what is required from a specific person in order for her/him to be entitled to belong, to be considered as belonging, to the collectivity. Common descent (or rather the myth of common descent) might be demanded in some cases, while in others it might be a common culture, religion, or language.


Loyalty and solidarity, based on common values and a projected myth of common destiny, tend to become requisites for belonging in pluralistic societies. In other words, in different projects of the politics of belonging, the different facets of belonging—social locations, identities, and ethical and political values—can become the requisites of belonging and the delineation of boundaries.


Migrants, especially forced migrants, challenge the naturalized equation between people, territory, and political community. Most develop practical as well as emotional, multilayered belonging/s, claiming inclusion in the new territories and spaces to which they have migrated. Many are of course prevented from gaining spatial security rights where they live—they are denied permits to stay, to work, and to gain formal citizenship. Even if they gain these rights, however, their attachment to the societies from which they or their parents and ancestors came usually do not disappear. The communication and transport revolutions of the age of globalization have reinforced these tendencies. They have also reinforced what Michael Mann has called “the dark side of democracy”—an impetus toward ethnic cleansing and autochthonic spaces that are “otherness free.”[5]


Hannah Arendt and, following her, Giorgio Agamben claimed that refugees—and, I would add, other “people on the move,” especially the undocumented ones—embody the border zone between the citizen and the human.[6] All too often the human rights of people are respected only if they also have formal state citizenships, and even among this group there is local and global stratification among those who “really” belong and those who do not. Migrants, especially racialized and forced migrants, are the specter of the Other in the autochthonic dream of a “pure,” otherless universe that we must confront. This border zone is our political as well as analytical challenge.



This text is an adapted version of Nira Yuval-Davis’s lecture at TBA21’s ephemeroteræ program in Vienna, July 2016, with additions from her book The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations and her article “The Dark Side of Democracy: Autochthony and the Radical Right,” 50.50: Inclusive Democracy, July 26, 2011,

Photo: Sandro E.E. Zanzinger / TBA21
Peter Geschiere, The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2009), 1; see also Nira Yuval-Davis, The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations (London: Sage, 2011).
Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 9.
Nira Yuval-Davis, “The Double Crisis of Governability and Governmentality,” in “Next Generation Feminism,” ed. Sally Davison and Jonathan Rutherford, special issue, Soundings, no. 52 (Autumn 2012): 88–99.
See Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000).
See Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
See Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” (1943), in The Jewish Writings, ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (New York: Schocken, 2007), 264–74, and Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights,” in Means without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 14–26.
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