This project is animated by the paradox that racialized hierarchies prevail in European public and political life even as tolerance is said to be among Europe’s defining virtues. It analyses this predicament by means of an anthropological study of the encounter between Latvian nationalism and the liberal politics of tolerance implemented as part of the postsocialist democratization agenda. This project argues for the importance of studying postsocialist democratization in Eastern Europe in order to understand how the colonial mode of power endures in contemporary Europe and beyond.
My analysis of complicit becoming in the context of postsocialist transformations in Latvia is informed by the analytics of race and coloniality, as espoused by Barnor Hesse and other scholars of coloniality, postcoloniality and race. These analytics help to illuminate how the “not yet” designation operative in the context of European Union integration and postsocialist democratization in Eastern Europe is an exercise of the European colonial mode of power. Importantly, these analytics also enable an examination of the complicities of Latvian aspirations towards Europeanness through which Latvians identify with Europe’s colonial history and ethno-racial conceptions of historical and political agency.
With regards to the encounter between Latvian nationalism and European liberalism, I draw on the analytic of spatial and temporal relationality as elaborated in human geography (Doreen Massey) and critical theories of race (David Goldberg). I use the relational approach to critically engage with bounded conceptions of place and identity that animate Latvian post-Soviet nation-building, as well as with bounded conceptions of racism and intolerance that animate liberal tolerance politics. In doing so, I question the idea of intolerance as a problem of particular states, nations, or peoples.
The project develops Eastern Europe as an epistemological viewpoint for analysing European political space. It also puts forth the notion of complicit becoming. Complicity is a useful concept to speak about an often-unwitting participation in reproducing hegemonic modes of power. Linking complicity with becoming—rather than doing—disarticulates complicity from guilt for wrongdoings in the past, instead articulating it with historically informed responsibility for what one is becoming in relation to shared presents and futures.
The project entailed 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork on “tolerance work”, which involved the development of the Latvian National Program for the Promotion of Tolerance by a network of government and non-government actors between 2005 and 2008; the public discussions that took place along the way; and the numerous seminars, information campaigns, public events and meetings that constituted the Program’s implementation.
In the context of postsocialist transformations, it has been commonly thought that liberalism is a necessary counterforce to the problematic nationalism that holds Eastern Europe in its grip and gives rise to intolerance and racism. I argue, instead, that both European liberalism and Latvian nationalism are complicit with the colonial mode of power, which works by distributing Europeanness through racialized hierarchies constitutive of European modernity. Tolerance promotion efforts produce Europeanness as a racialized marker of maturity and civilization, while Latvian nationalism embraces hegemonic and racialized conceptions of historical and political agency. However, because liberalism is posited as a solution to nationalism, their intersecting complicities are obscured and the moral superiority of the imaginary figure of Europe is reasserted. To put it another way, postsocialist democratization efforts have been commonly viewed as addressing the problem of racism and nationalism, which obscures how these very efforts have also been animated by a colonial mode of power through which race is produced.
During the course of the project and in its aftermath, I took active part in public debates in Latvia about racism, intolerance, discrimination and nationalism. These took the form of media appearances, press articles, as well as participation in conferences and discussions.
Vārda brīvības robežas
Latvia’s language referendum raises questions of national identity
Deutsche Welle | Gederts Gelzis | 20 Feb 2012
The Dark Side of Europe,
Europe, we need to talk | 7 Aug 2012
Diagnosing intolerance: knowledge practices in post-socialist Europe
Anthropology podcast | Feb 2014