Supremacists – a global survey of right-wing identity gurus

15 Sep 2020 - 12:30

Been wondering about the global resurgence of supremacist ideology?  Distinguished Professor Philippe-Joseph Salazar has written a book on this topic.Currently available in French, Suprémacistes is described by its author as a "travel narrative - a travel into "whiteland" ... a journey into white ideas".

Distinguished Professor Salazar responds below to key questions about his new book.

Could you explain briefly why the resurgence of white supremacist ideology is of interest to a professor of philosophy and rhetoric – and why you think it is critical that we track and understand this resurgence?

If race, like gender, is "social construct" it is quite natural for a philosopher versed in rhetoric to probe a new social construct of "racism" when one is emerging in public discourse - the more so for a rhetorician like me who questions how public discourse is structured by arguments based on opinions held firmly, and often incoherently, by those who believe in them. And by those who believe they are true, or practically good, or ethical.

"Supremacism" is an interesting opinion: it is the tag - we call it a "floating signifier", sorry for the expression - a tag given by those who oppose a discourse they define as racism.

Why floating?

It is an idea coming from semiotics: when a word is attached to a reality we cannot define with accuracy, for whatever reason - and the reason is more often than not a political standpoint, and a strategy - the word, the signifier, floats in language, in discourse. It acquires a power on its own. It floats from X to Y, and X and Y will find it very hard to rebut or disprove this labelling. This is what is happening with "supremacist": it floats.


In a way I met those on whom the floating label got attached and I asked them: are you a supremacist? The fact they deny it does not mean they are or are not. That evaluation is left to my readers.

Tell us more about the process of researching and writing this book

It took me four years to read, select, and approach a good dozen intellectuals, across continents and generations, and languages also. As I said they refuse to be called supremacists. Which, for me, begged another question: why deny, because if you deny a label, you have to know what your true label is, don't you?  In fact, what they refuse to accept is a discourse, of those who are anti-racist, which they see as hegemonic. For them white discourse, let's put it that way, is in a position of inferiority. The hegemony, the dominant discourse, is not on their side. They have read Marx and postmodern philosophy and know exactly how ideology functions: by imposing a discourse that seems natural you control power. They believe, and argue that they defend the white race, as they call it, from a position of weakness and of being dominated. While the dominant discourse talks of white privilege, they argue back white disempowerment.

What do they mean by white?

In the book I try to scan through all the definitions, labels, rallying cries, used by themselves and their opponents, to describe what they are. The media, the intelligence agencies dealing with terrorism, politicians and so on, are using a whole gamut of expressions - for instance, "radical right-wing extremism". The list is open-ended. If anything, it shows a lack of insight, and how little understanding they have of this ideology. Their opponents prefer the comfort of clichés.

Could you explain this further?

What it shows is the difficulty that the dominant discourse, to accept that qualification, is having in defining them. Themselves, they use expressions such as white nationalism, Europeanism, white dissidence, Indo-Europeanism, but not at random. Each expression reflects a different take or stake on a central theme: when it comes to politics they believe whites should, worldwide, cease to be concerned with other "races", and only take care of "themselves". Their position is a radical anti-humanist, anti-universalist belief. On the whole, it is an ideology taking shape before our eyes, across continents. I focused on their intellectual gurus as it were - with two exceptions.

Who are these exceptions?

Well, buy the book. No spoiler here!

Can you share a little about being your “investigative reporter” approach to writing this book?

Ancient Greeks had a very nice term to describe someone who observes and analyses: a "theoros". The "theoros", from where the word theory comes, does not theorise about the world, as some love to do, but observes it (that's the meaning of "theorise" in Greek). The first theorist, in that practical sense, was Herodotus, the inventor of history, who travelled the known world to describe, analyse and compare countries, peoples, and laws, with a view to understand why those who are different behaved  and thought in different ways. In short, a philosopher is a traveller, a "reporter" of sorts, an enquirer.

Enquiry is a key word in philosophical literature: one asks queries, one enquires. For that you need someone to query from. In this research I embarked on a journey, literally, to meet and talk - on their  home turf - with leading white nationalists, intellectuals, seniors and youngsters also, the next generation. While their names are rarely mentioned in the media, they are giving shape to what I consider to be an emerging ideology quite different from racism as we have known it, in Europe, in the US, and in this country.

 Are there parts of the book you think are the most interesting or intellectually important?

Every one of them. Each chapter presents a different case, and it is the sum total of the chapters, the whole narrative, that propels a vision as complete as possible, I believe, of the various discourses of white nationalism, the "white international" if you wish. It was not an easy task. I had to be both persistent and resilient. Some refused to meet me. Some had to be convinced. Some are not that happy with the book. One is in fact very unhappy.

Do you think it really is possible to not take sides? To remain neutral or objective?

German philosopher Georg Simmel famously said: You need not be Cezar to understand Cezar. I am fully aware that a social construct in the humanities, going back to a trend in anthropology, is that one cannot be a neutral observer. It is an opinion. I am a rationalist and I believe, but it is a belief I don't try to force onto others, that if one need not be Cezar to understand Cezar, one cannot  look at Cezar as a pretext for projecting one's obsessions, likes and dislikes. Unfortunately, one of the failings of the belief that one cannot be a distant observer is to get so intimately engaged with an object of study that it turns into some sort of therapy, or self-aggrandisement, or politicking. I believe it is disrespectful towards those you study, and disrespectful toward reason itself. I try to be prudent. Of course, I am aware of the pitfalls, for me, of such a controversial topic.

I have been there before, when I worked in South Africa in the late seventies I was bothered quite a lot by the apartheid security police, and when I wrote on jihad I was accused of being a propagandist for the Islamic State militants. When I wrote on the decay of democracy in France. I was accused of being aligned, already, on the Yellow Vests rebellion. I have published in Spanish and in French the Truth and Reconciliation Report, and even that did not sit well with everyone. Do I care? Yes, because I respect my readers.

Who do you think should read this book?

The way it was written, and judging by reactions already - I am busy with interviews - anyone with a modicum of interest in public affairs, and of course some awareness of public affairs beyond journalistic commonplaces, will find it interesting. In line with the suggestion earlier that a philosopher is a traveller, this book is travel narrative - a travel into "whiteland", a travel narrative, a journey into white ideas. The dialogues are vivid. I am a keen listener. But it is not either for the faint hearted. The bluntness of some statements are, well... blunt. I don't doctor. I observe. I don't spare the reader. You'll go from a boating village at Cape Cod to a forest of Virginia, from the Meatpacking district in Copenhagen to an 11th century school in Eastern Germany, from a bookshop  in Paris to a very special location in Washington, or a spot in French Gascogne after having coffee in Vienna. You'll see the world - their world. You size up the extent of their footprint.

And the book is available?

Yes it came out on 10 September, in Paris. It has been first released in French - the French New Right is intellectually important to the genetics and discourse of white nationalism - by a prestigious trade publisher, Plon, itself part of a very large media empire.  They took up the challenge of publishing a book against the grain. One reviewer wrote "Salazar was not expected on this topic". Goes to show. I believe Plon are looking at a German translation first, following a trend set by my book on the Caliphate of the Islamic State that went first into Italian, Spanish and German, before appearing in English.

It may be time for your readers to learn a foreign language? It is on sale through Amazon. 

Additional Interviews

Further interviews about his new book have been conducted with Distinguished Professor Salazar, including the French weekly L'Express.