Book review: From Righteousness to Far Right. An anthropological rethinking of critical security studies.

by Emma Mc Cluskey

In her book From Righteousness to Far Right, Emma Mc Cluskey brings an anthropological revision of critical security studies and offers an ethnographic contribution for understanding the securitisation of migration. The book comes as an alternative to the narrow perspective of early schools of critical security studies (Copenhagen, Paris and Aberystwyth), which so far fail to address the legitimisation of ‘threatening migrant’ and xenophobia to day-to-day life, practices and the normalisation far-right politics towards migrants and refugees. The author moves away from a focus on high politics, e.g. official documents and discourses, and brings a new political-anthropological perspective to investigate security and migration and provide alternative realms of understanding everyday life practices, under, as the author states, a broader politics of humanitarianism and righteousness. 

More specifically, the author Mc Cluskey guides the reader through the evolution of critical security studies and international political sociology and highlights the rising need of broadening the (in)security agenda beyond state focus institutions by engaging the idea of international as a specific problem. With the current literature perceiving the problem of (in)security by focusing on processes and relations in the level of agents, what is excluded, according to the author, are realms that have been ignored so far as being insignificant, that of ordinary people’ day-to-day processes and practices. 

In order to address this gap in the literature, Mc Cluskey focuses on an anthropological mode of knowing, which she calls a ‘meta-narrative’. As part of framework, the author uses James Scott’s notion of practices of the ‘metis’ and ‘public and hidden transcripts’, that implies a rapid knowledge adaptation to unpredictable events, in order to examine practices of day-to-day life. In that line, Mc Cluskey based on the conceptions of Scott’s notions, offers a substitute approach to the examination of the ‘appropriation of humanitarianism, generosity and solidarity as a form of security’. Additionally, the author also uses Michel Foucault’s notion of governmentality and ‘caring bio politics’, that highlights a correlation between practices of conduct (or counter-conduct) and Scott’s idea of public and hidden transcripts. By doing so the author is enabled to examine power relations and a type of governmentality, by exploring and articulating the national myth of ‘moral exceptionalism’ and ‘humanitarian superpowerfulness’ that constructed the ‘good citizen’ identity. The author also brings forward the concept of rättfärdig (righteousness), to the sense of ‘good’ and noble’ that echoed the Swedish asylum policy. 

From Righteousness to Far Right provides a very interesting and innovative anthropological rethinking of critical security studies”

Mc Cluskey focuses her work on the small village in southern Sweden, called Öreby, where Syrian refugees were resettled in 2013. Sweden is perceived by the author as one of the most humanitarian nations in the Western world and morally exceptional, reflecting this notion of righteousness as part of the ‘national myth’.  The author conducted 19 months of fieldwork, where she was working as a translator and interpreter for a grass root NGO—Friends of Syria—founded for the purposes of assisting and supporting the refugees to settle into life in Sweden. In addition, the author also conducted interview with volunteers, figureheads and refugees, giving her the opportunity to witness the initial warmth welcoming between the villagers and the refugees. However, what Mc Cluskey was also able to observe is a gradual transformation of this attitude of hospitality to a more hostile one and a slippery notion of solidarity. What was previously perceived as a deemed taboo, later has been normalised around a frame that portrays the refugee as a national treat and calls for measures of restricting migration. And what appeared to be micro practices under the banner of righteousness and a sense of decency evolved to narratives of obligation of reciprocity as acknowledgements of the villagers’ generosity. 

Mc Cluskey argues that it is these micro physics and micro practices that empowered a far-right narrative—rather than grand ideology—that can explain the political transformation on the ground. The attitudes of originally ‘good’ and ’decent’ villagers who embraced righteousness shifted from the Swedish values of morality, equality, solidarity and humanitarianism to a new framing of refugees as threatening, unwelcome, and undesirable. As the welcoming mind set shifted to one of rejection, the discourse of integration was replaced by notions of violence, and the relationship between solidary and security became more complex. In the field, Mc Cluskey found practices of scepticism, hostility, and rising concerns of the ‘threat’ refugees were posing against the ‘Swedish way’—embracing the dividing narrative of ‘othering’.

According to Mc Cluskey, the alteration can be aggravated by a notion of compassion fatigue on part of the villagers that lead to a microphysics of outrage. This, along with the moral panics around alleged violent behaviour of refugees and an evolving discussion on the exploitation of the Swedish welfare by the Syrians, has contributed to this shift on what was considered an acceptable behaviour towards refugees. For the author it is these moral panics that prove the coexistence of ‘hidden and public transcripts’ and the coexistence of practices of ‘benevolence and violence’. What is worth mentioned is that by the time Mc Cluskey finished the fieldwork, the relationships between the villagers and the refugees had been scattered. 

What Mc Cluskey argues in the case of Öreby, can be perceived as a mirror example of what was actually taking place in Sweden at the time. Looking at the general election results in 2014, the far right party of Sweden Democrats doubled its support and gained 12.86% of the popular votes and thereby becoming the third largest party in the country. The party also manage to attract a quarter of the votes in the village of Öreby. In 2015, Sweden reformed its open-door asylum policy to all Syrian refugees arriving at the border, and reverted it to the ‘EU minimum’, highlighting a more restrictive asylum policy. 

What Mc Cluskey achieves through this political-anthropological analytical approach of micro practices is to provide new insights on the examination of issues of security, not just in a local but also in a national and an international level.

The author in the concluding chapter acknowledges the impact of the refugee crisis and its influence on the securitisation of migration debate. Which of course also includes stringent migration policies and the far right. What Mc Cluskey achieves through this political-anthropological analytical approach of micro practices is to provide new insights on the examination of issues of security, not just in a local but also in a national and an international level. This is one of the main contributions of the book, which leads to an exploration of the connection between critical security studies and anthropology and therefore to a broader recognition of the significance of micro scale practices in the understanding of world politics. With this interdisciplinary encounter, Mc Cluskey subsidises to multiple disciplines, not only the expected security studies, migration studies, critical security studies, international relations, Scandinavian studies and sociology but also politics and methodological approaches in social sciences.

Reflecting on the increasing discourse for more restricting policies towards migrants and refugees, along with stronger border controls, as a response to the refugee crisis, the book is appropriate timely. What it does, is bringing the sense of politics back to the core essence of interactions among people, moving away from the traditional political science approach. Mc Cluskey’s findings can be observed being unfolded on a daily basis: from ongoing situations in host countries of the Mediterranean, to the illegalisation of pro-refugee activism missions, even to the recent events in Greece (February 2020) with the government choosing to replace refugee camps with detention centres and with scuffles to break out between police and locals what attempt to stop any new construction for refugees.  Therefore, refugees being seen as a ‘threat’ by locals, who have shifted their meaning of ‘normal’ and ‘decent’ response to the crisis to a more excluding approach, can be applied to cases beyond the Swedish village of Öreby, complementing the initial intention of the author. 

There are some noticeable points of the book worth of additional discussion. The first one is the use of concepts and terms. For instance, there is no differentiation between the term refugee and migrant. From the reading it appears that both are interpreted as identical in terms of meaning, but a clarification in the beginning of the book could have been useful. Especially since, even in the case of Sweden, there are different practices both in political and day-to-day level, that separates this population in two different groups. Similarly, from the first pages of the book the author makes clear that there is a relative understanding of the term of ‘far right’ among people, however, the clarification of how the term is used is not clearly justified. The interpretation of the term ‘far right’ in line with broader practices that promote stricter refugee policies or note some similarities with the political discourse of parties like the Sweden Democrats, is adequate. It is not clear if the author’s intention is to avoid entering the debate of labelling the ‘far right’ but taken the fact that the specific research focuses on the day-to-day practices and experiences, it would have been really valuable to add an extra layer of analysis on the ethnographic data, that conceptualises ‘far right’ beyond the stereotypical frame of what ‘far right’ is alleged to be. Additionally, although there is rich information on the theory of Scott, it is not clear to the reader how the terms of ‘public and hidden transcripts’ or ‘merit’ is used for the purposes of the research, therefore further conceptualisation is required. This is also connected to a more methodological point. A stronger operationalisation in line with a stronger conceptualisation would be useful as it will offer a strengthening of the argument and a vibrant interpretation and discussion through the text.

Moreover, what is thought-provoking is the additional future research this book inspires. The author, in her narrative discusses peoples’ attitudes in terms of solidarity, generosity, humanitarianism and righteousness in the name of the morality of Swedish national myth. However, what is missing from the study is the intake of the villagers in Öreby of this moral perception of being ‘good’ and ‘decent’ in the time of the change in their behaviour. Finally, while Mc Cluskey brings the focus to micro practices, something that have been ignored by the majority of the studies in the field, what would have been really causative is the study of both high politics and day-to-day practices in a comparative or complementary way. In other words, examine the discourse and practices of far right in both institutional and grass root level. Lastly, exploring additional cases along Sweden, in local and national level, can provide a rich insight into an international scale.  

From Righteousness to Far Right provides a very interesting and innovative anthropological rethinking of critical security studies. The work provides a very thorough study that could be stimulating not only for academics, but also for public audience. 

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