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The New Global Vulgate

Across the world, all manner of intellectual professions and state elites are speaking a strange new language whose vocabulary seems to have come from nowhere but is suddenly in everyone’s mouths: “globalization” and “flexibility,” “multiculturalism” and “communitarianism,” “ghetto” and “underclass,” and their so-called postmodern cousins: identity, minority, ethnicity, hybridity, fragmentation, and the like. The spread of this new global vulgate is the product and trace of a novel kind of academically based imperialism whose effects are all the more pernicious for being promoted by cultural producers who more often than not think of themselves as progressives.

Cultural imperialism rests on the power to cause particularisms linked to a singular historical tradition to be misrecognized as such. Just as in the nineteenth century a number of philosophical questions debated as universal throughout Europe and beyond actually originated in the historical particularities of the singular universe of German academics, as historian Fritz Ringer showed in his classic study The Decline of the Mandarins[1], so today a number of questions arising directly from intellectual confrontations over the peculiarities of American society and its universities have been imposed, in oddly dehistoricized form, upon the whole planet. These new commonplaces, in the Aristotelian sense of presuppositions of discussion that themselves remain undiscussed, owe much of their power to the fact that, circulating from academic conferences to best-selling books, from semischolarly journals to experts’ evaluations, from commission reports to magazine covers, they are present everywhere at the same time, from Berlin to Tokyo and from Milan to Managua, and are powerfully supported and relayed through the allegedly neutral channels of international organizations (such as the OECD, the World Bank, or the European Commission) and public policy think tanks (such as the Manhattan Institute in New York City, the Adam Smith Institute in London, and the Saint-Simon Foundation in Paris).[2] Along the way, these commonplaces of the new global vulgate are transformed into a kind of universal common sense, leaving behind their roots in the complex and controversial realities of a particular historical society—the United States of the post-Fordist and post-Keynesian era of “small government” and of the “compassionate capitalism” that is embraced by both Democrats and Republicans, now tacitly elevated to the rank of yardstick for all things and model for all nations. (It bears stressing to avoid any misunderstanding—and to ward off the predictable accusation of “anti-Americanism”—that nothing is more universal than the pretension to the universal or, more accurately, to the universalization of a particular vision of the world; and that the demonstration sketched here would hold, mutatis mutandis, for other fields and other countries at other epochs, including France.)[3]

Of the distinctly American cultural products now being diffused on a planetary scale, the most insidious are not the apparently systematic theories (such as “the end of history” or “globalization”) and pseudo-philosophical worldviews (“postmodernism”), as these are quite easy to spot. Rather, they are those isolated and seemingly technical terms such as “flexibility” or “employability,” which, because they encapsulate and communicate a whole philosophy of the individual and of social organization and yet seem so eminently practical, are able to function as political code words and mottoes—in this case, the downsizing and denigration of the state, the reduction of social protection, and the acceptance of casual and precarious labor as a fate, nay a boon.

Most of the recent research on ethnoracial inequality in Brazil strives to prove that the country of the “three sad races” is no less “racist” than others.

Thanks to a symbolic inversion based on the naturalization of the schemata of neoliberal thought, whose dominance has been imposed for some twenty years by the relentless sapping of conservative think tanks and of their allies in the political and journalistic fields,[4] the refashioning of social relations and cultural practices in advanced societies after the U.S. pattern—founded on the pauperization of the state, the commodification of public goods, and the generalization of social insecurity—is nowadays accepted with resignation as the inevitable outcome of the evolution of nations, when it is not celebrated with a sheepish enthusiasm eerily reminiscent of the infatuation for America that the Marshall Plan aroused in a devastated Europe half a century ago.[5]

A number of related themes recently arrived on the European intellectual scene, and especially on the Parisian scene, have thus crossed the Atlantic in broad daylight or have been smuggled in under cover of the revived influence of the products of American research. Consider “political correctness,” which is used, even more so in French intellectual circles than in America, as an instrument to suppress every subversive impulse, especially feminist or gay; or the moral panic over the “ghettoization” of so-called “immigrant” neighborhoods; or the moralism that insinuates itself everywhere and leads to a kind of principled depoliticization of social problems, stripped of any reference to domination (as exemplified by debates around the family but seeping into issues of crime and work); or, finally, the opposition between “modernism” and “postmodernism,” which has become so canonical in those regions of the intellectual field closest to cultural journalism and which, founded as it is on an eclectic, syncretic, usually dehistoricized, and always highly approximate rereading of a platoon of French and German authors, is in the process of being imposed in its American form upon the Europeans themselves.[6]

In the debate swirling around “race” and identity the new global vulgate has brought similar, if more brutal, ethnocentric intrusions. A very particular historical representation— born from the fact that the American tradition superimposes on an infinitely more complex social reality a rigid dichotomy between whites and blacks—can even be foisted on countries where the operative principles of vision and division of ethnic differences, codified or practical, are quite different and which, in the case of Brazil, were until recently considered counterexamples to the “American model.”[7] Carried out by Americans and by Latin Americans trained in the United States, most of the recent research on ethnoracial inequality in Brazil strives to prove that, contrary to the image that Brazilians have of their own nation, the country of the “three sad races” (indigenous peoples, blacks descended from slaves, and whites issued from colonization and from the waves of European immigration) is no less “racist” than others, and that Brazilian “whites” have nothing to envy their North American cousins on this score. Worse yet, Brazilian racismo mascarado should by definition be regarded as more malign precisely on account of its being veiled and denegated. This is the claim of political scientist Michael Hanchard in Orpheus and Power: By applying North American racial categories to the Brazilian situation, Hanchard seeks to make the very particular history of the U.S. civil rights movement into the universal standard for the struggle of all groups oppressed on grounds of color (or caste).[8] Instead of dissecting the constitution of the Brazilian ethnoracial order according to its own logic, such inquiries are most often content to replace wholesale the Brazilian national myth of “racial democracy” (as expressed, for instance, in the works of Gilberta Freyre[9]) with the American myth according to which all societies are “racist,” including those with in which “race” relations seem at first sight to be far less hostile than the American model. In works like these the concept of racism no longer serves as an analytic tool but rather as a mere instrument of accusation; under the guise of science, it is the logic of the trial which asserts itself (and which ensures book sales).[10]

In a classic article published thirty years ago, the anthropologist Charles Wagley showed that the conception of “race” in the Americas admits of several definitions according to the varying significance granted to descent, physical appearance, and sociocultural status (occupation, income, education, region of origin, and so forth) depending on the history of intergroup relations and conflicts in the different geographic zones.[11] The United States is utterly alone in defining “race” strictly on the basis of descent, and then does so only in the case of African-Americans: one is “black” in Chicago, Los Angeles, or Atlanta, not by the color of one’s skin but for having one or more ancestors identified as blacks, that is to say, at the end of the regression, as slaves. The United States is the only modern society to apply the “one-drop rule” and the principle of “hypodescent,” according to which the children of a mixed union find themselves automatically assigned to the “inferior” group—here the blacks, and only them.

In Brazil, on the other hand, racial identity is defined by reference to a continuum of “color,” that is, by use of a flexible or fuzzy principle that, taking account of physical traits such as skin tone, the texture of hair, the shape of lips and nose, and of class position (notably income and education, as indicated by the well-known Brazilian saying “money whitens”) generates a large number of intermediate and partly overlapping categories (more than a hundred of them were recorded by the 1980 census) and does not entail radical ostracism or stigmatization with out recourse or remedy. Evidence for this is provided by statistics on segregation in Brazilian cities, which is strikingly less pronounced than in U.S. metropolitan areas, and the virtual absence of two typically U.S. forms of ethnoracial violence: lynching (another name for ritual caste murder) and urban rioting.[12] Quite the opposite in the United States, where there exists no socially and legally recognized category of “métis” (mixed-race).[13] In this case we are faced with a division that is closer to that between absolutely defined and delimited castes (proof is the exceptionally low rate of intermarriage: Fewer than 2 percent of African-American women contract “mixed” unions, as against about half of American women of Latino or Asian origin): a caste division that one strives to conceal by submerging it with in the universe of existing ethnoracial orders as “revisioned” through U.S. lenses by means of “globalization.” (That this projection of the American folk vision of “race” onto Brazil is effected with the best intentions in the world by progressive American analysts, including African-Americans, and is generally met with acclaim and enthusiasm by leaders of the Afro-Brazilian movement only compounds the difficulty of detecting their paradoxical contribution to reinforcing the symbolic mechanisms at the root of racial domination in both the United States and Brazil.)

Alongside the role of philanthropic foundations, we must also include the internationalization of academic publishing among the factors that have contributed to the diffusion of American thought in the social sciences.

For all the prestige and authority of the various products of the U.S. academy that serve to facilitate this “globalization” of American problems (and thereby verify the Americanocentric understanding of “globalization” as the Americanization of the Western world and, eventually, of the entire universe), none of them are sufficient by themselves to explain the ability of the U.S. worldview, scholarly or semischolarly, to impose itself as a universal point of view, especially when it comes to issues (such as “race”) where the particularity of the U.S. situation is particularly flagrant and particularly far from exemplary. One would obviously need to invoke here also the driving role played by the major American philanthropic and research foundations in the diffusion of the U.S. racial doxa within the Brazilian academic field at the level of both representations and practices. Thus, the Rockefeller Foundation and similar organizations fund a program on “Race and Ethnicity” at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro as well as the Center for Afro-Asiatic Studies at the Candido Mendes University (along with its journal Estudos Afro-asiaticos) so as to encourage exchanges of researchers and students. But the intellectual current flows in one direction only. And, as a condition for its aid, the Rockefeller Foundation requires that research teams meet U.S. affirmative action criteria, applying in yet another way the uniquely American black/white dichotomy to a country where it is, to say the least, ill-suited.

Alongside the role of philanthropic foundations, we must also include the internationalization of academic publishing among the factors that have contributed to the diffusion of American thought in the social sciences. The growing integration of English language academic book publishing, along with the erosion of the boundary between academic and trade publishing, has helped encourage the circulation of terms, themes, and tropes with strong (real or hoped) market appeal—which, in turn, owe their power of attraction simply to the very fact of their wide diffusion. For example, Basil Blackwell, the large half-commercial and half-academic publishing house, does not hesitate to impose titles on its authors that conform to the new planetary common sense. Such is the case with the collection of texts on new forms of urban poverty in Europe and America assembled in 1996 by the Italian sociologist Enzo Mingione: It was dressed up with the title Urban Poverty and the Underclass against the opinion and will of its editor and of several contributors since the entire book tends to demonstrate the vacuity of the notion of “underclass.”[14] Faced with the manifest reticence of its authors, it is all too easy for Basil Blackwell to claim that an enticing title is the only way to avoid a high cover price which would kill the book in question. (Needless to say, it is hardly the only publishing house to prioritize the dictates of global merchandising over intellectual value.) Thus do purely marketing decisions homogenize research and university teaching in accordance with fashions coming from America, sometimes even managing to fabricate outright “disciplines” like cultural studies, this mongrel domain born in England in the seventies, which owes its international dissemination—if not the whole of its existence—to a successful publishing strategy. That this “discipline” does not exist in the French university and intellectual life, for example, did not prevent Routledge from publishing a compendium entitled French Cultural Studies, on the model of British Cultural Studies (there are also volumes of German Cultural Studies and Italian Cultural Studies). And one may forecast that, by virtue of the principle of ethnico-editorial parthenogenesis in fashion today, we shall soon find in bookstores a handbook of French-Arab Cultural Studies to match its cross-channel cousin, Black British Cultural Studies, which appeared in 1997 (but bets remain open as to whether Routledge will dare German-Turkish Cultural Studies).

The same trajectory can be seen in the international diffusion of faddish notions like “cyborg” or the true-false concept of “underclass,” which, through the effects of transcontinental allodoxia, has been imported by those Old World sociologists most anxious to experience a second intellectual youth by surfing on the wave of popularity for “Made in America” concepts.[15] To summarize quickly, European researchers hear “class” and believe the term refers to a new position in the structure of urban social space, while their American colleagues, with very few exceptions, hear “under” and think of a mass of dangerous and immoral poor people in a resolutely Victorian and racistoid manner. Paul Peterson, a distinguished professor of political science at Harvard University and director of the Committee for Research on the Urban Underclass of the Social Science Research Council (financed yet again by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations), left no grounds for uncertainty or ambiguity when he summarized approvingly the findings of a 1990 conference on the “underclass”: “The suffix ‘class’ is the less interesting component of the word. Although it implies a relationship between two social groups, the terms of this relationship remain indeterminate with out the addition of the more familiar word ‘under.’ ‘Under’ suggests something low, vile, passive, resigned, and at the same time, something shameful, dangerous, disruptive, dark, malignant, and even demonic. And, as well as these personal attributes, it implies the idea of submission, subordination, and wretchedness.”[16]

In virtually every national intellectual field, researchers have come forth to take up the scholarly myth of the “underclass” and to reformulate in these alienated terms the question of the relations between poverty, immigration, and segregation in their own country. One loses count of the articles and works that purport to prove—or, what amounts almost to the same thing, to disprove—with admirable positivist diligence the existence of this group in such-and-such a society, town, or neighborhood, on the basis of empirical indicators often badly constructed and badly correlated among themselves.[17] To pose the question of whether there exists an “underclass” (a term that some French sociologists have not hesitated to translate as “sous-classe,” perhaps foreshadowing the revival of the concept of “sous-hommes” or Untermensch) in London, Lyon, Leiden, or Lisbon, is to suppose at the least, on one hand, that the term is endowed with minimal analytic consistency and, on the other, that such a group actually exists in the United States.[18] Unfortunately, though, the semijournalistic and semischolarly notion of “underclass” is as devoid of semantic coherence as it is of social existence. The incongruous populations that American researchers usually group under the term—welfare recipients and the long-term unemployed, unmarried mothers, single-parent families, rejects from the school system, criminals and gang members, drug addicts and the homeless, when they do not refer to all ghetto dwellers in bulk—are lumped together in this catch-all category for the simple reason that they are perceived as living denials of the “American dream” of individual success and universal opportunity.[19]

Indeed, cultural imperialism, American or otherwise, never imposes itself more utterly than when it is served by progressive intellectuals.

Upon closer scrutiny, the “underclass” turns out to be nothing but a fictional group, produced on paper by the classifying practices of those scholars, journalists, and related experts in the management of the (black urban) poor who share in the belief of its existence and have thereby brought renewed scientific legitimacy to the scholars and a politically and commercially profitable theme to the rest.[20] Inept and ill-fitting in the American case, when imported to Europe it makes even less sense. The agencies and methods for the government of misery are vastly different on the two sides of the Atlantic, not to mention the differences in ethnic divisions and their political status.[21] “Problem populations” are neither defined nor treated in the same manner in the different countries of the Old World as they are in the United States. Yet most extraordinary of all is the fact that, in keeping with a paradox that we already encountered with regard to other false concepts of the globalized vulgate, the notion of “underclass,” which has come to us from America, was in fact born in Europe. The term was actually coined in the sixties by the economist Gunnar Myrdal, who derived it from the Swedish onderklass. Myrdal’s intention, ironically, was to describe the marginalization of the lower segments of the working class in rich countries in order to criticize the ideology of capitalist societies.[22] One can see here how profoundly the detour through America can transform an idea: From a structural concept aiming to question the dominant representation of society emerges a behavioral category actually designed to reinforce that representation by imputing to the “antisocial” conduct of the most disadvantaged the responsibility for their own dispossession. (The same process of inverted transmutation, whereby a notion, theory, or paradigm is reinvented into its opposite, has happened in greater magnitude to the work of Foucault on power and identity, which most American exegetes misread as an attack on reason, a theoretical vindication of “identity”—a notion he exploded—and an exemplar of “postmodemism,” a label he famously derided thus shortly before his death: “What is it that they mean by postmodemity? Je ne suis pas au courant”).

As for those in the United States who, often with out realizing it, are engaged in this huge international cultural import-export business, they occupy for the most part dominated positions in the American field of power and even in the intellectual field. Just as the products of America’s big cultural industry—such as jazz and rap, or the commonest food and clothing fashions, like jeans—owe part of their quasi-universal appeal to youth to the fact that they are produced and worn by subordinate minorities,[23] so the topics of the new global vulgate no doubt derive a good measure of their symbolic efficacy from the fact that, supported by specialists from disciplines perceived to be marginal or subversive—such as cultural studies, minority studies, gay studies, or women’s studies—they take on, in the eyes of writers from the former European colonies, for example, the allure of messages of liberation. Indeed, cultural imperialism, American or otherwise, never imposes itself more utterly than when it is served by progressive intellectuals—or intellectuals of color in the case of “race”—who would appear to be above suspicion of promoting the hegemonic interests of a country against which they wield the weapons of social critique. In this manner, an apparently rigorous and generous comparative analysis can, without its authors even realizing it, help universalize a problematic made by and for Americans.

The United States may well be an “exceptional” country, but its exceptionalism does not reside where the national sociodicy and social science agree in placing it, namely, in the fluidity of a social order that offers extraordinary opportunities for mobility (especially in comparison with the supposedly rigid social structures of the Old World). On the contrary, the most rigorous comparative studies conclude that the United States does not fundamentally differ in this respect from other industrial nations, although the span of class inequality is notably wider in America.[24] If the United States is truly different, in accordance with the old Tocquevillian theme untiringly renewed and updated, its exceptionalism lies in the rigid dualism of its racial division. A second, paradoxical exceptionalism is its remarkable, newly minted capacity to project as universal that which is most particular to it while passing off as exceptional that which makes it most ordinary.


[1] F. Ringer, The Decline of the Mandarins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).

[2] Among the books that attest to this rampant McDonaldization of thought, one may cite the elitist jeremiad of Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), immediately translated into French by Julliard under the title L’âme desarmée (“The Disarmed Soul,” 1987), and the angry pamphlet by the neoconservative Indian immigrant (and Reagan biographer) based at the Manhattan Institute, Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: The Free Press, 1991) translated into French with the title L’Education contre les libertés (“Education against Freedom,” Paris: Gallimard, Collection le Messager, 1993). One of the best ways to spot the works participating in this new intellectual doxa is the unusual speed with which they are translated and published abroad (especially in comparison with scientific works).

[3] On France, cf. P. Bourdieu, “Deux impérialismes de l’universel” in C. Faure and T. Bishop, eds., L’Amérique des Français (Paris: Ed. François Bourin, 1992).

[4] P. Grémion, Preuves, une revue européenne à Paris (Paris: Julliard, 1989); Intelligence de l’anticommunisme: le Congrès pour la liberté de la culture à Paris (Paris: Fayard, 1995); J. A. Smith, The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite (New York: The Free Press, 1991); Keith Dixon, Les Evangelistes du Marche (Paris: Editions Liber-Raison d’agir, 1998).

[5] On “globalization” as an American project, see N. Fligstein, “Rhétorique et réalités de la ‘mondialisation,'” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 119 (September 1997); on the ambivalent fascination with America in the post-war period, L. Boltanski, “America, America … Le plan Marshall et l’importation du ‘management,'” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 38 (1981); and R. Kuisel, Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1993).

[6] This is not the only case where, by a paradox typical of symbolic domination, a number of topics that the United States exported and imposed around the world, beginning with Europe, have been borrowed from those who now receive them as the most advanced forms of theory.

[7] According to the classical study of C. Degler, Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995, first published 1974).

[8] M. Hanchard, Orpheus and Power: The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, 1945-1988 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994). One will find a partial antidote to ethnocentric poison on this subject in the work of Anthony Marx, Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South Africa and Brazil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), which demonstrates that racial divisions are closely linked to the political and ideological history of the country under consideration, each state creating in a sense the conception of “race” which suits it.

[9] G. Freyre, Maîtres et esclaves (Paris: Gallimard, 1978).

[10] How long will it be before we get a book entitled “Racist Brazil” patterned after the scientifically scandalous “Racist France” of a French sociologist more attentive to the expectations of the field of journalism than to the complexities of social reality [Ed: This is in reference to Michel Wieviorka, La France raciste (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1993)]?

[11] C. Wagley, “On the Concept of Social Race in the Americas,” in D. B. Heathand R. N. Adams, eds., Contemporary Cultures and Societies in Latin America (New York: Random House, 1965).

[12] E. E. Telles, “Race, Class, and Space in Brazilian Cities,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 19, no. 3 (September 1995); and G. A. Reid, Blacks and Whites in São Paulo, 1888—1988 (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).

[13] F. J. Davis, Who is Black? One Nation’s Rule (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State Press, 1991), and J. Williamson, The New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 1980).

[14] E. Mingione, Urban Poverty and the Underclass: A Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1996). This is not an isolated incident: As this article is going to press, the same publishing house is embroiled in a furious row with the urbanologists Ronald van Kempen and Peter Marcuse to try and get them to change the title of their joint work, The Partitioned City, into the more faddish and glitzy Globalizing Cities.

[15] As John Westergaard already noted a few years back in his presidential address to the British Sociological Association (“About and Beyond the Underclass: Some Notes on the Influence of the Social Climate on British Sociology Today,” Sociology 26, no. 4 (July-September 1992): 575—587).

[16] C. Jencks and P. Peterson, eds., The Urban Underclass (Washington. D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1991), 3.

[17] Just three examples among many: T. Rodant, “An Emerging Ethnic Underclass in the Netherlands? Some Empirical Evidence,” New Community 19, no. 1 (October 1992); J. Dangschat, “Concentration of Poverty in the Landscapes of ‘Boomtown’ Hamburg: The Creation of a New Urban Underclass?” Urban Studies 31, no. 77 (August 1994); and C. T. Whelm, “Marginalization, Deprivation, and Fatalism in the Republic of Ireland: Class and Underclass Perpectives,” European Sociological Review 12, no. 1 (May 1996): 33—51.

[18] In taking considerable trouble to argue the obvious, namely, that the concept of “underclass” does not apply to French cities, Cyprien Avenel accepts and reinforces the preconceived idea according to which it does apply to urban reality in the United States (“La question de l’underclass des deux côtés de l’Atlantique,” Sociologie du travail 39, no. 2, April 1997: 211—237).

[19] N. Herpin, “L’underclass dans la sociologie américaine: exclussion sociale et pauvreté,” Revue française de sociologie 34, no. 3 (July-September 1993): 421—439.

[20] L. Wacquant, “L”underclass’ urbaine dans l’imaginaire social et scientifique américain” in S. Evans Paugam, ed., L’exclusion: l’état des savoirs (Paris: Editions La Decouverte, 1996), 248—262

[21] These differences have deep historical roots, as attested by a comparative reading of the work of Giovanna Procacci and Michael Katz: G. Procacci, Gouverner la misère: la question sociale en France, 1789-1848 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1993); and M. Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A History of Welfare in America (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

[22] G. Myrdal, Challenge to Affluence (New York: Pantheon, 1963).

[23] R. Fantasia, “Everything and Nothing: The Meaning of Fast Food and Other American Cultural Goods in France,” The Tocqueville Review 15, no. 7 (1994): 57—88.

[24] Cf. notably R. Erikson and J. Goldthorpe, The Constant Flux: A Study of Mobility in Industrial Societies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992); Erik Olin Wright arrives at the much same result with a notably different methodology in Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Inequality (Cambridge-Paris: Cambridge University Press—Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 1997); on the political determinants of the scale of inequalities in the United States and of their increase over the past two decades, C. Fischer et al., Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996).