Ash Amin’s new book Land of Strangers is “for an idea – that the stranger is neither friend not foe, but constitutive” of the health of societies. In alarmist tones we are warned of the perilous contemporary condition, fraught with racist biopolitics, where the stranger is cast as a foe. According to Amin, an inclusive humanism, predicated on strangers assimilating into society and becoming hand holding Kumbaya singing friends, lays waste to the different perspective that strangers brings to the table. Instead, Amin looks to material conditions to cultivate a society of collaborating participants, all strangers at the start. Amin calls this a “civility of indifference to difference” in the same heavy-handed jargon that pervades this book, characteristic of much academic writing on this subject. The dense prose regrettably detracts from the erudite, multidisciplinary bent of the project; one that could have otherwise engaged a wider audience interested in how modern technological advances, urban planning and collaborative business models have paved the way for a new politics of the stranger. As the clamoring for austerity rings hollow in Europe and seems to deepen existing social fractures, it seems wise to take Amin’s advice and cultivate an ethic where all working hands are welcome on deck.
For Amin, difference breeds creativity and our grim times need all the creative innovation we can muster. In order to exemplify how irreducible difference can be valued, Amin looks to the collaborative innovations in the corporate world. This move is particularly refreshing in an age where a Marxist critique of capitalism dominates much of the theorizing of the academic left. For Amin, it is the corporate world that makes visible the material value of difference in spurring creativity and leading to profitable economic innovations. In emphasizing the “materiality of transactional environments” he reaffirms the economics of sociality that he claims is missed by a multi-culturalism that focuses on the encounter where the stranger is merely recognized.
Amin insists that all social interactions, including the moment of the interpersonal encounter where one human recognizes another, are mediated by non-human materiality. Built environments, technology, tools, toys, prosthetics, etc. subliminally or overtly influence the nature of social ties and are implicated in the broad spectrum of human experience. Despite his critique of the humanist project, he does not go so far as to explicitly call for an ethics where even the non-human has a role in the political landscape. Though, he does suggest that an environmental conscientiousness could arise from a robust politics of the stranger.
By positing that the material world underpins all of our social transactions, Amin concludes that a politics of recognition is inadequate. This is so because the relationship with the stranger is not merely in the moment of the encounter, but pervasive, palimpsestic. The most nefarious manifestation of this is the phenomenology of racism that is imbedded in the institutions of our built environment and our social habits. This argument is familiar to anyone who has ever complained about microaggressions. According to Amin, this everyday performance of race occurs because we are in the habit of racializing difference. What makes this acutely problematic is when this obscured racism is tapped into, embellished and employed to achieve political ends. Fascism is the typical exemplar, but Amin insists that we see this in the repurposing of difference to fuel the war on terror, with its rampant Islamaphobia and surveillance culture.
Amin paints a stark picture, one where a contemporary global politics of fear is constraining the democratic inclusivity of the public sphere in Europe. The current political climate in Europe is one that is predicated on risk management where the stranger is seen as that which needs to be disciplined in order to neutralize their potential threat to the social order (Amin calls this a “punitive biopolitics”). The alternative that is proposed in Land of Strangers is a politics of preparedness and insurance against an unknowable and potentially risky future, where the difference that comes with the strangers becomes a tactical advantage toward that end. Amin claims that democracy must be built into the machinery of this alternative form of risk management in order for it to be successful. For Amin, it is precisely this mobilization against risk that fuels social collaboration and builds trust. Whereas a punitive biopolitics individualizes us and erodes the prospect of solidarity, a land of strangers makes us think again in collective terms and renews the call for a strengthened welfare state.
Indeed, one of the central prescriptions of the book is a call to turn back to the project of universalistic social equality and make the welfare state more robust. I, for one, would have appreciated greater elaboration on how this might be in tension with the risky business of welcoming the metaphorical stranger with open arms. I am certainly sympathetic to the normative concerns that are central to Amin’s argument, namely that it is problematic when people are perceived of as strangers and scapegoated by racializing and politicizing their differences. However, there is a rich literature out there (take Michel Serres’ work in The Parasite and Derrida’s On Hospitality for instance) on how the other, or the stranger, can yes, on one hand spur creativity and innovation, but on the other can be parasitic and destructively so. Amin’s failure to address this later concern ultimately leaves me unconvinced with his argument.
The pithy epilogue is a worthwhile commentary on the recent popular uprisings that have been sweeping across the globe, from the Arab Spring and Occupy, to the anti-austerity protests and the Fukushima debacle. For Amin, these movements exemplify how authoritarianism can stifle burgeoning moments of solidarity where we see strangers banding together and rising to demand a better world. He reasons that catastrophes, whether natural or political, can foster collaboration around a shared experience of injustice and a mutual task of rebuilding; they can be breeding grounds for strangers to become allies. However, this momentum can easily be forestalled or coopted. Amin suggests that in these moments a choice is made to either reinforce or shatter a politics of trust; a choice to either value a plural public sphere, a land or strangers, or to pit individuals against one another; a choice to work together or against. For Amin, simply waiting for strangers to love one another will not deliver the society that values the stranger or prepares us to face the turbulent times ahead. Instead, we need all hands on deck, sleeves rolled high, ready to work towards building a better future together.