We’ve gone a whole week without the racist massacre in Buffalo being supplanted in the news cycle by a bigger massacre elsewhere in the country. So we’ve been treated to a continual barrage of stories about a white supremacist conspiracy theory called the Great Replacement, and we’ve been once again told by the mass-incarcerator-in-chief that white supremacy is a stain on our country. Occasionally someone mentions the proliferation of rapid-fire weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines as a potential problem.
Of course, getting control of the wild proliferation of very deadly weapons throughout American society would not be profitable for the arms manufacturers that own the Congress. It’s much easier to talk about the stain of racism in the society, since that’s a much more amorphous notion than the concept of rounding up all the AR-15’s and throwing them in a smelter.
It also appears to be much easier to deride a white supremacist conspiracy theory, talk about social media disinformation, and to point out that Tucker Carlson is a fascist, than it is to talk about the many other reasons why a conspiracy theory like this one might become so very popular so quickly.
It has always seemed to me to be patently ridiculous to suspect a cabal of wealthy Jews of running the world. Given how many Jews of all walks of life have been killed in pogroms or gas chambers, depending on which century’s horror show of inhumanity we want to dwell on, this cabal is doing a really shitty job of running the world on their own behalf. A good ruling cabal doesn’t get continually slaughtered, seems to me.
But other than the part about the small cabal of wealthy Jews at the center of the operation, the Great Replacement conspiracy would seem to contain lots of kernels of reality in it. Many people have observed that the most popular conspiracy theories tend to have kernels of truth in them, which tends to be a big part of the attraction in the first place.
If we were to actually try to make sense of the popularity of this conspiracy theory beyond Fox News and social media algorithms, then rather than fear-mongering and talking about how hopelessly racist much of society is, we could try to put the Replacement concept into a bit more context.
Historically and currently, the basic modus operandi of settler-colonialism is Replacement. There are other forms of colonialism, but in the form of colonialism that saw the settlement of places like North America by Europeans and their descendants, the basic model was one that involved the systematic theft of indigenous land and the systematic elimination of the indigenous population, through murder, biological warfare, and starvation. Only once this process of settlement and slaughter had resulted in a territory’s population being majority white could it be eligible for statehood in the US. That is, only once the indigenous population had been sufficiently replaced by whites was it considered eligible for the “civilization” that came with being part of a country whose economic foundations were built on and sustained by the enslavement of Africans and the replacement of Indians.
In Palestine today, the illegal settlements are continually expanding, with Palestinian homes and villages being continually destroyed by Jewish settlers and the self-proclaimed Jewish State (Israel), in a settler-colonial process of replacement. The English term “replacement” is used locally by people talking about this process, I just heard it a couple weeks ago on NPR. I don’t know what that is in either Hebrew or Arabic.
The methodology of settler-colonialism is not a recent development, whether or not the stenographers of those in power that call themselves journalists know anything about it, or the real foundations of the societies they live in, hiding just beneath the thin fig leaf of some limp form of democracy. With the emphasis in the propaganda on the US being largely a society of immigrants, it’s convenient not to have to mention that this immigration was of a forced nature, involving wars, famine, and persecution. And certainly convenient not to have to mention that what these so-called immigrants generally had in common was that they were from somewhere in Europe. This is because if you’re following the settler-colonial model of replacing the indigenous population with settlers, the settlers are to be from certain places. Historically this has meant not just Europe, but preferably northwestern Europe. Many laws were passed to keep out everyone else, or to kick them out once they were no longer useful. Basically, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other settler-colonial enterprises had a whites-only immigration policy for most of the time they have existed as colonies or countries. And it was all about replacement.
This only began to change basically in my lifetime. Although there is still a tremendous preference in favor of Europeans, and specifically certain Europeans, most of the settler-colonial countries no longer have a whites-only immigration policy. And due to higher birth rates among many immigrant groups, a declining lifespan among increasingly opiate-addicted white Americans, and many other factors, it is indeed the case that even with the relative trickle of nonwhite immigrants allowed to move to the US every year, whites are on track to become a minority of the overall population sometime in the next couple decades.
This “browning of America,” as I recall Newsweek calling the phenomenon on one of their magazine covers in the 80’s, is often celebrated among Democratic Party pundits. Despite all the jerrymandering going on all over the place that tends to favor Republicans, ultimately with the demographics changing as they are, Democratic Party candidates will get elected more and more often, more and more easily, or so the theory goes.
It’s not a very good theory, given that the Republicans are successfully appealing more and more to the working class, and Democratic politicians seem to drift further and further away from any identification as the party of the working class majority. But whichever of the two corporate parties might benefit from these demographic changes, the demographic changes are real, they’re happening, people know they’re happening, and at least to some extent, government policies are making them happen faster. If we don’t have a whites-only immigration policy, this will naturally result in more people of color in society. And if we don’t systematically kill off undesirable segments of the population by lynching them, starving them, enslaving them, sending them to residential schools, imprisoning them, castrating them, exiling them, etc., then this kind of change in policy will result in populations growing.
Whites-only immigration policies, the scalp economy, arming settlers and exclusion laws were not conspiracies, and certainly not Jewish ones. They were policy, openly practiced and espoused, on the books. To the extent that they exist today, such as very notably in Israel, they are practiced with a very thin fig leaf of the rule of law of some kind, but basically it is naked settler-colonialism, with Palestinians excluded from civilian courts, Israeli elections, the Israeli military, and Israeli society more generally.
Fear-mongering about the nonwhite barbarian hordes is a very longstanding trope in the US and all other settler-colonial societies. The policy of replacement was and is real, and it has been a policy used to expand and sustain settler-colonial societies, very profitably for the immensely rich powers-that-be in all of these societies, very much including this one. What has changed, at a glacially slow pace, mainly in my lifetime, is for the first time since any of these states were states, in some of them already, people of primarily European descent are a minority.
If you look at the totality of the situation I think it’s abundantly clear that what is happening in the US demographically is not any kind of Replacement, “Great” or otherwise. But the concept of replacing one part of the population with another is, in fact, one of the main colonial practices this country was built on, and that is worth understanding, along with why the concept of replacement could be used by the Right to their advantage, as a familiar bogeyman to rally around — the loss of a white majority achieved and maintained through the violent practices of Replacement.
If there’s a moral to this ongoing Replacement story, be it historic white supremacist practice or rightwing conspiracy theory, I’d suggest this one: when we compare ourselves to the far more prosperous multi-party democracies of Europe, we may note one of the big differences between the two sides of the Atlantic. On this side, the population is sharply divided along racialized lines, the descendants of settlers and the descendants of the settled and the enslaved. On average, all of these groups are made up overwhelmingly of members of the working class, and today they all have a lower standard of living and a lower life expectancy than your average European.
The rich here in the US are richer, and the poor poorer and far more numerous, than in other allegedly developed nations, because here the rich long ago discovered how easily they can pay half the working class to kill the other half. And now, with half the working class concerned about somehow being replaced by the other half, we’re on some very familiar-as-apple-pie American ground here. But can’t we just replace capitalism instead?
(This essay was written before the Ulvade, Texas mass shooting.)