Can we also have Corbyn and Sanders?

In late 2015, after seven years of unresolved economic crises, two old white men summoned the most potent left-wing resurgence in a generation. They had weathered decades of right-wing policies by their party, standing by their principles, hoping for their time to come. Now it has.

Corbyn and Sanders may seem like characters from a fairy tale, or a surreal radical fantasy: After Labour and the Democratic Party bit the poisoned apple of the Third Way, the parties’ left half got paralyzed, until each was kissed by its own retirement-age prince. Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour party in late 2015, just after Sanders surged in the Democratic presidential primaries. Social democracy seemed to be walking and talking again.

Seeing those two men awakens lustful fantasies in European radicals. Where are our elderly leftists? they ask. Where is our savior? But the resurgence of the left is not a fairy tale (except in the sense that it hasn’t really happened yet). Several factors underlie the success of Sanders and Corbyn which aren’t in place in European countries. We can broadly summarize them under two headings: What makes these two men so special, and what sets the parties they (nearly) conquered apart from those of other countries?

Men of Principles

Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders started their political careers in the early Eighties, just as class politics were dying and supermarket politics were born. People left their political tribe to shop in the marketplace of ideas, expressing themselves through consumption and voting. Politics became a matter of signaling values and opinions, both for voters and politicians. Single-issue parties sprung into existence. As the hippie movement died, its ideas were selectively plucked into mainstream culture. Self-improvement and authentic expression became the ideal of personal development.

Meanwhile, the media meandered from heavy central control, with high-minded ideals of public service, to mere eyeball-farming for advertisements. Prices of newspapers dropped, but so did their credibility. Tabloids became tools of influence and mass-diversion. In order to compensate for their catering to their advertisers and owners, editors resorted to flick-baiting; sensational news about prurient or salacious things. What politicians did with their assistants became more important than what they signed off as law.

This helped to narrow political debate, keeping it on a short leash of ad- and campaign-finance. During this period, plagued by Thatcher, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Blair, some more Bush, Change We Can Believe In and Gordon Brown, inequality increased while political parties agreed on one principle, which Tony Blair put thus: “For business, this will be a government on your side, not in your way.”

Radicals like Corbyn and Sanders didn’t participate in this rightward swing. They kept attending protests, marches and meetings. As the left splintered into single-issue campaigns, they hopped between the street and the representative houses. For decades, the two of them seemed like quaint and irrelevant Ghosts of Christmas Past.

Then, ten years ago, the economy betrayed the politicians and collapsed.

The fractured left wasn’t in any shape to respond. Social democratic parties sacrificed what little credibility they had left trying to restart capitalism rather than reform it. The inequalities it produced increased sharply, and people felt miserable. Nobody seemed to represent their concerns. The left was discredited and out of touch, the right was breaking apart into globalisers and patriots. The ruling parties became weak, discontent rife. They were weak against insurgents.

Activists from the various movements coalesced around those who had supported their struggles — like Corbyn and Sanders. They registered for party membership, campaigned door to door, pushing their candidate forward as the Democratic and Labour old guard tried to beat them back. But the tactical disorientation of the establishment, its lack of base, and the utter ideological vacuum which it inhabits made resistance to the activists difficult.

Parties of Parties

It was a coalition of activists that made and sustained Corbyn and Sanders as viable candidates, but it was the specific structure of the Democratic and Labour parties that made the intrepid duo a credible threat to the establishment.

Both the US and the UK have a “first-past-the-post” polling system, where each unit of voters returns not a proportional list of candidates, but a single representative. The natural outcome of such a system is a parliament dominated by two parties, with a sprinkling of smaller ones. This has many interesting consequences, but one of them is to force two centrist coalitions down the throat of the electorate; center-left and center-right. In the US, the Democratic Party has taken the mantle of urban and progressive center-leftism, and is, by the necessities of the two-party system, their coalition. In Britain, the analogous party is Labour.

This contrasts vividly with continental European politics, which are proportional and return a plethora of parties. There, the disintegration of the leftist class struggle into identity politics was effortlessly reflected in parties for the environment, animals’ rights, digital privacy, anti-corruption, secession, womens’ rights, leaving or entering the EU, nationalism, pensioners’ rights, etc etc etc. Once all those cats have gotten out of the bag, they can’t be herded back all to easily. The leftists aren’t coming home to roost. They’re out there, doing their very individual thing, absorbed in the freedom afforded them by their electoral system.

Upstarts

At this point, you might be wondering what this analysis makes of parties like Syriza and Podemos, substantial left-wing groups in proportionally representative systems.

Syriza came to power in 2015 on the back of grim disapproval of the eurozone’s treatment of Greece. National politicians were seen as corrupt henchmen of large business, caring more about keeping face and holding their seats than representing the people. (Nothing is new under the sun, and this feeling seems to well up every time financial crises occur. It may be a roughly accurate picture, but people are willing to let it slide if there’s money to be made.) Podemos was empowered by a weaker form of the same policy.

Those parts of Spain that have a better time, economically, aren’t as susceptible to this mood. In Catalonia, the richest region of Spain, anti-establishment parties haven’t had much success, and the coalition of left-wing causes, CUP, is the region’s smallest party. Its moderate economic troubles have been channeled into a secessionist movement. Its campaign promises to free the region from the corrupt Madrid elite.

Having skirted the economic hellfire of Greece, Spain’s Podemos is now more focused on anti-corruption than anti-austerity. Italy’s M5S and Iceland’s Pirate Party have the same emphasis — and they also try to bring new people, fresh faces, into power. (Their e-democracy platforms, while interesting, don’t seem to be catching on as a credible alternative to representation.) Syriza, on the other hand, was made up of several left-wing parties, with plenty of established politicians on board. It wasn’t about the personalities of the establishment, but about its economic policies.

As Syriza learned, winning an election isn’t enough. Once in government, the bureaucracy of Greece and the EU conspired to undermine its anti-austerity platform, until nothing remained for its ministers but capitulation to foreign demands.

Getting the Party Started

Gaining power is only helpful if you can wield it. Corbyn’s task (Sanders having been defeated) is to transform his party into what it once was — a democratic and representative tool of working people. Once he has, he’s disposable. Britain will have the machine to transform popular needs into political power, and the persons fronting it won’t be what matters.

The fundamental truth of politics is that it isn’t about personalities. It’s about societal forces. The reason Corbyn’s past matters today is that he’s currently not really a representative of the people. Until his party becomes properly democratic, he needs foot soldiers to keep him safely in office. He’s their consensus candidate because they trust him, which is why his personality and history matters for now.

The lesson for other European radicals is that leftism is a plausible strategy in theory, but that their institutions — the old social democratic parties — won’t implement it. Nobody believes PASOK, PSOE, SPD, SPÖ or PS will deliver thorough reform, except in favor of business. Possibly a credible and principled member of such a party hasn’t left it for her or his favored minority cause, and is available as a tool for reforming the party. If so, the task will be to convince voters of the permanent opposition parties, that have never sullied themselves with actual governance, to come back. If not, we’re going back to the drawing board.

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Can we also have Corbyn and Sanders?

Fighting police, with room for improvement

For two years, on the corner of Black Forest Avenue and Alder Street, the “Black Alder” squat sat within proud view of Basel Central Station. This former brothel became home to squatters who made a housing and social project out of it. Last Wednesday, a man who called himself the building’s owner entered the house, shadowed by five imposing private security men. Barging into the residents’ breakfast, he declared that they had ten minutes to leave. He photographed and filmed them without permission and when a resident who had been out walking came into the building, the owner shoved her back, assisted by his entourage.

As residents refused to leave, he called in the last weapon of the scoundrel — the police — to turn the house back into whatever sordid business he desires to operate there. Or perhaps he’d rather keep it empty, as it was before it was taken over by squatters. In any case, the police promptly executed his will. The house was cleared. One person was dragged out in handcuffs, held incommunicado for two hours and made to strip naked before being released without charge.

When I walked by the house in the evening, dispirited and bewildered squatters stood outside. Police guarded the street and took care only to let in a handful of people at a time. Some were crying, others wondering where they should sleep that night. Occupying houses is always a precarious way of life, but ten minutes’ notice to leave your home is more Gaza than Basel, no matter how volatile your circumstances.

In the evening, a spontaneous demonstration was announced in the center of town. People gathered around ten o’clock and headed to the site of the Black Alder. Fireworks, improvised mini-bombs and flares accompanied polyglot chants (Basel is at the border of France, Germany and Switzerland). The chants expressed the anti-capitalist and libertarian worldview of the squatting scene — “Whose streets? Our streets!”, “A-Anti-Anticapitalismo”, “Wir sind wütend, wir sind laut, weil man uns die Erde klaut”, “Tout le monde déteste la police” — with the additional jab at lease agreements. As we approached the police, another chant broke out: “Für die Bonzen steht ihr da, Marionetten, ha ha ha!” (“For the fat cats you stand there, puppets on strings, ha ha ha!”). An evictee led chants with fervor.

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As we stopped near the line of police, people gazed down at us through the windows. Some filmed the march, others smiled. One or two along the route threw water on the marchers. At one point, a glass bottle was thrown from the roof of a building straight into the crowd. It strafed the arm of a friend of mine, barely missing his head. No response came from the protesters, apart from some shouts.

After the police had been pelted with the small explosives and flares for a few minutes, an order was given for the crowd to disperse. It was met with yet another explosive device, thrown into the ranks of the police.

Rubber pellets were shot into the mass of people. A black bloc member shouted at people not to run away immediately, and some held relatively still and tried to back away calmly rather than surrendering to panic. The continued rain of rubber pellets made that difficult. The black bloc became more clearly separated from the unprotected protesters, who retreated slightly farther away.

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Any hope of getting to the Black Alder was snuffed out when masked policemen wielding clubs charged into the remaining and slowly retreating crowd, beating the legs of those they could reach. This time nobody shouted at the crowd to stand fast. People simply ran.

It must be said that telling people to stand still in the face of overwhelming violent force is not just irresponsible, but also counterproductive. The only strength of guerrilla-like groups is not in their resistance to concentrated force, but in the rapidity of dispersal and regrouping. This was evident at the recent G20 meeting in Hamburg. There the police tried to violently attack and arrest the entire thousand-strong black bloc, located in the middle of the Welcome to Hell march. The black bloc largely escaped, mostly by jumping over a fence that broke down under the pressure. This unaccountably shortsighted adventurism of the police was not only ineffectual, but caused innumerable injuries, which soaked up all the supplies of the protest’s medical team. The uselessness of the police’s assault became evident in the night, when furious protesters descended on the Schanze, looting supermarkets and barricading themselves in. On the other hand, ending up in the Schanze, rather than choosing a strategic target, was a miscalculation on the part of those who took over the quarter.

In Basel, on the other hand, the violent attack on protesters ended the evening’s action. Policemen drove around the area afterwards like conquerors, proudly shouting “Run home, pant-pissers!” and checking a few people’s ID. (Whose streets? Their streets.)

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It’s hard to estimate whether this action was a success or failure, not least because the aims weren’t really clear, at least to me. Popular opinion wasn’t guaranteed to be on the squat’s side to begin with, and throwing fireworks at the police was as good an excuse as any for it to return fire. Seeing the balance of physical force in that street should have made it clear that winning in a street fight (or getting to the squat) wasn’t an option, unless the police held their fire. A strictly nonviolent march with media presence could possibly have succeeded in that, though getting into the house would have been a long shot.

In any case, the invitation to a violent response from police was always bound to end in their victory. There were two dozen organized and heavily armed policemen on one side and only about a hundred disorganized people in evening dress on the other. (The crowd was initially bigger, but had thinned out somewhat when the confrontation with police started.) It would have needed a far bigger crowd to overwhelm the police, and that kind of mobilization is crippled if protesters are seen to be provoking the police. (A second protest is planned for tonight.)

Another, different purpose of this protest may have been revenge. A few weeks ago, the eviction of a squat in Effingerstrasse in Bern was to be protested by marching through the city. Reitschule, in the center of town, was the march’s starting point, but the police closed off all avenues away from it. This forced the demonstrators to make their point where they stood. They did, by rioting. That response is not necessarily directed at the public, but at the authorities, making it clear what consequences will follow from evicting squats or preventing protest. (The banner of the demo on Wednesday read: “Alder gone — onto the streets!”.) The risk there is in alienating the neighborhoods, turning them against the squats, and adding to the pressure for their eviction.

In any case, one hopes that the protest tonight will be more fruitful than the one on Wednesday. Perhaps the house will be re-squatted at some point, demonstrating the anarchists’ favored and most effectual method of operation: direct action, creating the world they’d like to live in day by day, and offering anyone who wants to to join in.

The best reporting on the eviction and demo was offered in Basel’s TagesWoche. I lifted the photos and audio from them.

Fighting police, with room for improvement

A radically democratic Socialist Party in Iceland comes to life

Last May Day, I joined the planning committee of a freshly founded Socialist Party in Iceland. Being more anarchist than socialist, but very disillusioned with anarchism’s lack of progress, this was a great opportunity to practice actually existing politics. After a summer of work, we are beginning to reap the fruits of our labors.

First, a rough background. Iceland is going through a tourism-fueled boom, which has led to some wage growth but also massive inflation in house prices, so there’s discontent among people whose wages rise slower than the rent, especially those with fixed incomes — pensioners and people subsisting on benefits. Corruption is rife. The family of the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister (yes, they’re related) owns much of the tourist economy. The “alternative” parties promising New And Better Politics have succumbed to the most stunning and precipitous loss of credibility by joining government and not changing anything. Most people expect a crash when tourists realize that Iceland isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Blairism has eaten the leftist parties whole, and even though inequality is rising, the Pirate Party is having difficulty sticking to a redistributionist platform. Enter a disgruntled and radicalized newspaper editor, pissed off that everybody knows stuff’s broken but nobody’s fixing it.

Calling together a group of about eight radical left-wingers, activists and anti-poverty advocates, he founded the Socialist Party of Iceland (second edition) on May Day this year. At its inception, roughly one in every 200 Icelanders joined. (Calm down, it’s only around 1400 people.) With meager funds, a small planning committee, a concise manifesto and nothing to lose but our innocence, we plunged ahead.

We decided early on that policy would be made by regular party members, chosen at random. With the help of a furiously effective programmer, a digital mechanism for it was in place at the end of July. Four policy groups were set up; Housing, Common funds, Health, Democratization. Each was allocated thirty members, and we started calling them. “Shouldn’t take more than a day or two,” we thought. Oh, the folly of one’s youth.

After not one day, not two days, but seven days of maniacal phone calling, emailing, SMSing, Facebook messaging and everything short of walking to the front doors of our members’ homes, we managed to reach and get an “I’ll be there” from 120 people. (Knowing Icelandic manners and customs, we knew that many probably wouldn’t show up.) We invited them to a series of meetings. In the first one they’d come up with their respective “policy utopias” — a broad-strokes version of what their policy should aim at –, in the second one they’d talk with experts and people with experience of the policy area, and in the third one an analysis and a plan would be hammered out.

In short, we’d provide a meeting hall, soup, facilitators, experts, paper and pencils. They’d create the policy.

Today, we took the first step. Vision outlines, the four “utopias”, were written by the four groups. Next up are meetings with experts. In mid-September, our policy drafts should be ready.

We are painfully aware that we are experimenting as we go along, and that three rounds of meetings are a very short time for policy groups to come up with a detailed platform. The idea is to create a structure that’s robustly democratic, rather than immediate results. Anyway, after the meeting today, there’s good reason to think the platform will be excellent anyway. Turns out, when you give random strangers soup, a meeting hall, and a policy document to write, they come up with thoughtful and impassioned ideas. They have a world to win.

A radically democratic Socialist Party in Iceland comes to life

And now for something completely different

It’s surely accepted that necrophilia’s bad; not for you, necessarily, but for society. The past is there to be let go of, and the future’s to be embraced, or at the very least danced with. As the present feeds us new worries by the day, we can either waspishly refuse its advances, or live with it, even live it.

In the last decade, liberalism has been dealt a death-blow. Free markets with a human face have not proven to be the final solution to the human problem, and their zombified perseverance must be attributed to habit, rather than merit. The EU’s attempt to justify its existence with reduced roaming rates and a free interrail pass have to be taken for what they are: a grasping at straws, and thin ones at that.

It has taken a quarter-century to see the tragic truth of the End of History: Capitalism has proven itself to be the only surviving remnant of the Century of Ideology, while proving that it cannot survive without a competitor. Ironically, the dogma of competition has suffocated itself by acquiring a monopoly. We’re at the pinnacle of worldly achievement: The future of sentient life is at the mercy of human institutions, and they have rid themselves of any alternative to self-destruction.

In response to this predicament, the Left has been rendered paralyzed. Its recourse has been to fantasy or futility. The post-2008 revolutions and tactics have only served to underline these tendencies.

First comes the fantasy. When the North-African revolutions broke out, a new model of uprising seemed to have been created. Intense networking unleashed the willpower of a subdued population, technology was making us free. Secularists and liberals shattered the frozen surface of dictatorship and forced change upon the elites. Tunisia was the first and most successful of these uprisings, Egypt the most significant, Libya the most catastrophic. What all of them proved is the weakness of disorder in the face of material power.

Tunisia, a nation of shopkeepers, managed to establish a fragile liberal rule, just as the West learned to loathe it. Libya disintegrated, proving that it never had been a nation-state to begin with. Egypt, the oldest nation-state in the world, fell into the hands of the group which had the most money and guns: the army.

Europe, meanwhile, was too crisis-stricken either to gloat or be disappointed. Its glory-projects of monetary unification and multiculture, both driven by the wants of northern economies, were falling apart. Too timid to unify Europe fiscally, too laissez-faire to integrate foreigners, the EU has pathetically crashed its way through one crisis after another, magnifying them at every turn.

Nevertheless, radicals of the West remain spellbound by the potential of technology, and all too unaware that our most serious problems are not technical, but structural. It is all well and good to be able to mobilize the masses, but if all they do is break without building, it might be better not to mobilize them at all. The societal systems we have are flawed, but they do at least have mechanisms to reduce inequalities of power. If we only destroy them, current inequalities will simply become formalized — and inequalities of wealth and power have not been worse for a long time.

Second comes the futility. Many of us do indeed recognize that the root cause of our problems is the stunning inequality of power that society suffers from. The question we’re faced with is obvious: What would remove it? Here a little history might help. What Piketty’s doorstopper showed, if nothing else, was that depression and war aided the advance of equality. For all the work of socialism, if there hadn’t been a stiff dose of self-immolation, industrial economies wouldn’t have allowed such things as welfare and international human rights law to pass.

The strength of these achievements can best bee seen in the postwar fetishism that still haunts us. The myths of social mobility, “Golden Age” capitalism, and humane corporatism all stem from this blip in our history, those three decades after humanity’s greatest bloodbath. It happened once, we can’t be sure (and shouldn’t hope) it ever will again.

Recognizing this means facing the fact that basic income and slightly adjusted taxation, or even a sturdy workers’ movement, is not sufficient as a strategy. In the case of basic income, it’s not even a strategy at all, but rather a double-edged tactic. After all, anything that Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman could propose in the seventies can hardly lay claim to anti-capitalist credentials.

Instead, the Left should be responsive to modern circumstances. We can’t rely on a worldwide socialist movement, but we can rely on further crises of finance and capital. We can’t rely on capitalistic reform, but we can expect environmental catastrophes. As a matter of fact, there are four famines in progress right now — the largest crisis of humanity since 1945, in the words of the UN humanitarian chief. The much-touted reduction in world poverty over recent decades hasn’t happened via free markets, but through state-led industrialization in India and China. The rest of the less industrialized world has been left in the lurch, and Africa, as usual, bears the brunt of it.

Climate disaster such as the recent famines is probably the biggest vacuum in liberal orthodoxy. Something along the axis of “more solar in China” to “Elon Musk’s next battery” is proposed as a solution to capitalism’s bewilderingly insatiable demand for energy and minerals. That simply won’t do. Less consumption in the West has to happen, and at the moment it seems it would take a global catastrophe to convince even liberal environmentalists that that’s necessary.

Conservatives tend to applaud themselves that they can face hard facts. In this case, they aren’t. Here, the Left has to take an unambiguous position. Any societal program from now on has to be of a global scale, and has to incorporate immense transfers of consumptive powers from the North to the South. Simply put, we have too much, while Africa and most of Asia have too little. Whether current nature-crunching, however distributed, is of a sustainable scope remains to be seen.

Our most immediate challenge is exclusive nationalism. Given the limited time we seem to have to deal with our problems, we can’t afford to see it as a cloud without a silver lining. Closed borders at least mean lessened mobility for corporations, and that tendency must be reinforced. Until a global regulatory framework can be implemented, free movement of corporations can’t be allowed. Individual humans tend not to be as destructive, but if their travels are to leave welfare systems intact and societies unfazed, those systems must be adaptive. A less localized form of welfare, for example one more reliant on unions, might reinvigorate both social safety and the unions themselves.

Capitalism has never been more fervently believed in, yet never more discredited in its fundamentals. Increased growth isn’t environmentally feasible, and it doesn’t increase public well-being. Concentrating wealth has captured political power, undermining meaningful expression of popular will and wants. Development in less industrialized economies isn’t taking place, and regression to rule by kings and juntas is happening there and at home. People who have been denied both bread and circuses are fed on symbolism instead.

Well, we can do symbolism too — and bread. If going to the moon was considered a worthy endeavor, surely saving the world can as well. Increased consumption is a lowly and uninspiring ideology. We can do better. The meaningfulness of nationalism and the power-dynamics of internationalism can be combined, and they must be, for us to have something to work with and to aim at. It’s not a matter of choice, but of necessity.

And now for something completely different

“We say no, people should leave Chios”

Just before Christmas, on December 22, as people are merrily buying their last gifts in Aplotaria, I meet with mayor of Chios, Manolis Vournous. He seems tired, but his views are stern and clear. After months of wrangling with the Greek government and chasing elusive responsibilities on the island, his patience is running thin. When I ask, to begin with, what he considers his main problem, he goes straight to what he sees as the heart of the matter.

The fundamental hypocrisy
“Chios, as well as Lesbos, Kos, Samos, have been assigned to be open camps,” he says. Meanwhile the EU and the Greek state don’t properly detain refugees. “So they’re hiding the fact that they want people not to be able to move, but at the same time they do not say that we want closed detention centers. On this lie, this hypocracy, is based all the mess that has happened on the islands.”

“All the rest is technicalities.”

These technicalities sprout around him in endless and undying variety. Refugees protest, fascists protest back, there are attacks, robberies, fights, suicide attempts. Society is tense and polarized. After the island was made a hotspot, tourism crumbled. But that’s not all. “There is very bad administration, there is very bad coordination, there is money that cannot be seen, there is lack of transparency, lack of information.”

Vournous is architect by profession, and a capable one as far as I’ve gathered. He seems to look at his problems rather like an issue of a bad diagram that needs to be fixed, of plumbing that has to be adjusted. He is, in short, a technocrat. It comes only as a mild surprise, therefore, that he admires the European Union. “By far, it is the best union of nations and of states, by far, globally, and all around history,” he says with not a hint of irony. “At least the history which I know!” he adds and laughs. “You cannot find any other union of states better than the EU.”

Hierarchies
Two days earlier, Maarten Verwey, coordinator for the EU-Turkey statement, had visited Chios to present Brussels’ vision for the island’s future. In it, there seems little chance of Vournous gaining much control over Chios, but he’s happy with the plan nonetheless. “It is the first time that we see seven pages, eight pages, describing which are the intentions.” Until now it was all irritatingly informal. But, according to mayor Vournous, Verwey’s plan — which includes pre-removal centers and faster processing — has two fundamental defects: It has no enforcement mechanism, and it leaves the refugees on the island as before.

The issue of enforcement brings Vournous onto an extended grumble about the nature of his job. “I do not accept that somebody is going to press me, I want people to make things happen and I do not want to be pressed for something or for me to press somebody else. How to press? I mean, humanly? Vocally? By hands? Or by other means? I do not accept this pressing as a political means which can be used in today’s society.” In other words, Vournous wishes for a politics without interest groups or power dynamics. His vision is of politics beyond politics, “a democratically made hierarchy,” with “people who decide something and people who must do it.”

He brings this up again later on, when talking about the vaporous organisation of camps and provision for refugees on the island. “A year and a half [has passed and] still the decisions and the coordination are left to a goodwill basis. We cannot go just with goodwill. There must be orders. There must be a hierarchy. I do this and you do the other; that’s my job, that’s your job, because otherwise we create this mess.”

Detention
When it comes to the result his hierarchy should preferably produce, he is more clear. “We must be able to say to our societies and ourselves that we do use detention centers, that we’re not hiding that behind the water.” If detention centers are used, that should be the openly stated policy. The detention should be unequivocal, with no going in or out. “In order to make that clear, the detention centers could be elsewhere.” One can almost feel his sigh of relief at the thought. “In Germany, in Italy, in France, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to be here, on Chios or on Samos. And of course we should be able to provide decent conditions for those who are detained.”

Reportedly, Verwey said in a meeting with the municipal councilors that Turkey had demanded the detention centers should be on the Greek islands. Vournous is not accommodating of this demand. “This is a matter of Greece, or the EU, where they’re going to have the detention centers. It is not a matter of Turkey.”

Culture
The mayor spares a thought for the differences between nations. “We have decided — not now, but thousands of years ago — that it is better to live within separated societies. When the societies have similar characteristics they can come into relations and gradually increase their brotherhood, their bonding, but at the same time there are borders of societies.” Though he doesn’t expound on our brotherhood with Turks or Arabs, he goes on to explain what he considers to be our fundamental values.

“The European civilization has as its basis the humanistic ideals and rationalism. We have to combine these,” he says. “We might have ideals, but since we are human, and we cannot do that on the absolute scale which God or nature can do it, you must put a human measure on it. We must say how much and how we are going to serve our humanistic ideals. It is not an option anymore to say that those who arrived on my borders are welcome and I give them…”

He interrupts himself.

“If you really want to serve your humanistic ideals, you must be where the need is. Not wait for people from Afghanistan or Mali to walk some thousands of kilometers and pay smugglers to arrive at your borders. You are not showing your humanistic face because someone arrived on Chios or Mytilini.”

Pressing matters
As for the most urgent thing facing him right now, it’s a mere stone’s throw from his office: Camp Souda. “The most pressing issue is to clear Souda, to demolish it. But you cannot demolish it while still there are people in there.”

As we talk, Souda was in its sixth day of electricity shortages, meaning heaters couldn’t be distributed. “I’ve heard enough with finding those who are responsible,” Vournous exclaims. “There is a deterioration if there is no heating in there. It’s deteriorating people. There we have taken the decision — I have taken the decision and the municipal council has confirmed it yesterday afternoon — that, yes, we are going to provide heating there. We are going to do it with our money.” He emphasizes the last two words. In a strangled economy such as that of Chios, this is no trifling matter.

He denies that this is a buildup of infrastructure. “It’s something that’s happening at twelve today and tomorrow at twelve it might be cut.” He maintains that the camp will be taken down at the first opportunity. And there will be no further camps.

“We are being asked to provide new areas for people to settle. We do not provide anything. We say that, no, people should leave Chios.”

And why isn’t that happening?

“The EU says no, the Greek government says no.”

The hierarchy refuses. Alas, it seems, politics and pressure are the only weapons left to mayor Vournos.

“We say no, people should leave Chios”

After nine months, what’s the deal?

It’s been more than nine months since the implementation of “Europe’s harshest collective response to migration since the Geneva refugee convention was signed”, the EU-Turkey deal. At year’s end, it might be interesting to look back on the last few months and recall what wonders it’s wrought on us. To that aim I’ve compiled a summary of the year’s events in Chios as they presented themselves to me during two visits, one at the rather ungraceful start of the deal, another just before Christmas.

I arrived in Chios early on Sunday March 20, as the newest group of refugees was being bused out of town to the prison camp Vial (and made to pay for the ticket). The next day I interviewed a few of them. Given how accustomed we’ve become to the “regularization” of migration, it’s worth reminding ourselves what a shock it was to people at the time to be subjected to the bureaucracy of steel and concrete.

With bad conditions inside the camp and access for outsiders restricted, it didn’t take long for the people inside to revolt. Within days, they’d broken out of Vial and hundreds of refugees had occupied the city’s port. Many local people who’d been apprehensive about the prison at Vial were furious at the uppity outsiders, who were now blockading the island’s lifeline. Eventually, after some whipping up of emotions in town, a mob came to the port and besieged it for hours. By shouting and aggressive bluster, and occasional violent outbursts, the mob eventually achieved its aim: To remove the refugees to camps.

Since then, the camps have become pools of stale misery. Every day is a refusal of humanity by a timid and self-serving European coalition of dread. An ever more confident fascist movement keeps rearing its head in Chios, encouraged by the police’s indifference, harassing refugees and even assaulting local people working in solidarity with them. In this video, a male nurse – Yannis – is attacked by the self-styled “Hellenic Patriot” Mathios Mermigkousis:

Mermigkousis has gained some notoriety in Chios. This is not his only outburst – he’s also beaten up a local journalist. He was one of the main demagogues behind the port siege, after which he posted his “congratulations” to Chians on Facebook, for having liberated the port. (Note the profile photo and the count of likes.)

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Kostas replies: “Bravo Mathios!”

This man, Mermigkousis himself, was incidentally hired by the EU Commission’s Maarten Verwey, coordinator for the EU-Turkey deal, when Verwey visited Chios in December. The Commission distanced itself from the hiring decision, saying it had been their contractor’s choice.

Verwey had come with a Christmas wish-list to the islands. After nine months of manifest disaster, mismanagement and lack of facilities, the Commission was proud to present yet more ambitious fantasies under the heading of a new “Joint action plan”. The local media and councilpeople were offered a vision of pre-removal centers, fully manned EASO operations, speedy asylum processing and heavier policing. Sound familiar? It’s exactly the things that were promised on March 18, but nobody bothered to make happen, because once the refugees were imprisoned, the North of Europe lost interest. (When the deal was signed, an EU official is reported to have joked: “We have a week to build a Greek state.” They didn’t, they couldn’t, and they knew it.)

Verwey’s wish-list reads like a parody of the Brussels mentality. It’s hard to see any reason why the things he wants to happen will, when they haven’t for the better part of a year. As the mayor of Chios told me succinctly, “We did not see any way in which the provisions of this plan can be enforced.”

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Outside the Wall – tents at the medieval fortifications of Chios in late December

As if to underline the delusion inherent in this manifesto, just a few hundred meters away, refugees were freezing in tents at Souda because nobody knew who was responsible for paying the electricity bill. Similar problems were reported all around Greece. A week passed until the mayor, in an act of frustrated despair, paid it out of the municipality’s account. It’s a rough choice to have to make, given the sour local mood and the collapse in tourism on the island, directly attributable to the EU’s migration policy.

The municipal council is pushing for the dismantling of Souda, with the aim of operating only the hotspot at Vial. Everyone that doesn’t fit in there should be moved somewhere else. Preferably, the mayor told me, the EU and the Greek state should admit that they want refugees detained, and just do it properly. “What I don’t want to be used is the water around the islands as a detaining factor.”

The refugees, meanwhile, had harsh words for the conditions in the non-prison camp of Souda. While electricity was lacking, pumps couldn’t be operated, so there was no running water. “The people use toilets without water. It’s very disgusting, very difficult to use the toilet again,” Loay, a Lebanese refugee with family in Syria told me. “Better stay in Syria than to come here. One could die, but one can go to the toilet first.”

Frustration, want and humiliation have occasionally led to fights, protests, vandalism or fires in the camp, all of which feeds into misgivings that locals may have toward the town’s camp.

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The deal was meant to allow for deportations to Turkey, but hardly anyone is being deported. Some people have returned voluntarily, giving up on the long wait. The IOM employs 4 people in Chios alone, two for each camp, to pimp out tickets back. About 1200 people got transferred to Turkey in 2016 under the aegis of the deal, out of about 22.000 that came the other way, but I’m not sure many of those were rejected asylum applicants. Instead, to relieve pressure off the islands, people are being transferred to mainland Greece. Chios, at least, has seen over 2000 people moved in the last third of the year, which is roughly equal to the number of new arrivals. Some also leave unofficially.

To summarize, the deal is obviously dysfunctional in every way but one: It keeps refugees stuck at Europe’s Turkish border. It’s therefore no mystery why the EU keeps the deal alive. The sheer willpower of Germany would be enough. But it’s not just Germany, of course. The bulk of the European North, while willing to protect refugees’ rights within its borders, is happy to suppress them elsewhere so it doesn’t have to make the effort.

Verwey was asked at his meeting with the Chios municipal council if he realized that the EU was handing Chios to fascists, and all of Greece to the extreme right. His reply: If the refugees would continue to come, all of Europe would turn fascist. Whether he’s right or not isn’t the point. The point is that the formulation of policy in Brussels is based on this assumption. It’s easy to see why refugees’ rights don’t make or break policy proposals.

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So the real question about the astonishing perseverance of the deal isn’t on the European, but on the Turkish end. Why hasn’t Erdogan scuppered it? The big promises were visa-free travel for Turks to Schengen, and some money. Visa-free travel will not happen to any large extent, if at all. The deal was made to protect Europe against foreigners, not to let them in, and Erdogan can hardly be oblivious to that. As for the money, it’s not a large part of the Turkish government’s revenue. No, it would seem he just wants to keep the leverage. He has a referendum coming up to make himself the Sun King of Turkey, an Atatürk reincarnated, in the first half of 2017. Until then he’ll be happy to keep his revolver trained on Europe’s puppy.

So there we are. The refugee flows into Europe caused political dilemmas that the EU is fumbling to keep concentrated in Greece and Italy, preferably out of Europe altogether. (It’s conceivable that Greece will be defined out of Europe to make that possible.) The fact that the EU is using these two countries’ fiscal crises to get them to comply makes nationalistic populism there all the more appealing. But as long as the refugees remain stuck on the periphery, that seems not to be the concern of the North. They’ve got elections to run for and populists to defeat at home, to save civilization from itself. And then, in due time, maybe they will again believe in human rights across our borders. Just not yet.

After nine months, what’s the deal?

The movement to Take Back Control

All over the world, people who we thought didn’t matter politically are speaking up. White trash and the unemployed, hillbillies and rednecks, forgotten by the political system that now scolds them for the way they’re kicking back. The sheer incomprehension of politicians and the media only serves to underline how utterly out of touch they’ve been. The much-touted statistical genius Sam Wang at Princeton University gave Hillary Clinton a 99% chance of winning the US presidency. The media lapped it up, painting her opponent as a clownish buffoon. They giddily described how she was now travelling to traditionally Republican states to destroy the GOP once and for all. Hillary was so sure of winning Wisconsin that she didn’t even go there to campaign. And then election night happened.

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This is a twist, if there ever was one. Nothing like it has ever been observed since last June, when precisely the same thing happened in Brexit.

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Ways to empowerment
Of course, the similarities have been recounted ad nauseam in recent days. But given the widespread incomprehension about Trump’s victory, and the ease with which his supporters have been explained away as senseless uneducated losers, it’s worth giving a quick overview of the Take Back Control movement. It has happened in various countries in various ways, and expressed itself through direct action, elections, referendums and revolutions. It happened in the Roman Empire by way of Julius Caesar in response to widespread corruption, in France in 1789 to sideline an incompetent and irrelevant elite, in Iran in 1953 to gain control over the country’s oil, in South- and Central America in recent decades to implement social justice in banana republics and corrupt states. It happened all over the industrial world after the Great Depression, and now, in the wake of the Great Recession, it’s happening again.

Taking Back Control takes different shapes in different places. If your country has oil, but you’re eating dust while foreign companies keep all the profits, you’ll naturally want to nationalize the wells and redistribute the proceeds. (And when you do, the rich countries will want to invade to restore the previous arrangement.) If you’re under an oppressive monarchy, you can use the impotent institutions that represent you and demand, at the point of a pitchfork, that these institutions get more power. But these days, in a complex world with convoluted economies, the reasons for our problems are a fog that surrounds us, but which we can’t grasp or hit.

It’s been this way since urbanized capitalism became the dominant economic reality. For nearly two hundred years, Progress has bulldozed our societies. The technological advances of the industrial revolution regularly wipe out entire sectors of work, beginning with agricultural labor, and create huge new ones, beginning with factories. The problem for many in the Western world, especially those with less education, is that the industrial jobs they relied on are disappearing without new ones being offered instead. Entire cities that once were powerhouses of industry are becoming synonyms for poverty and decline.

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In the 1989 film Roger&Me, Michael Moore documents how his hometown of Flint, Michigan, was laid waste to by the disappearance of the first GM car factory. Thirty thousand people were made redundant. The film was a wake-up call. Except nobody woke up. Massive inequality has made representative democracies responsive to only the most wealthy, rendering the working population ever more irrelevant. And the wealthy thought things were just fine.

The American Sleep Paralysis
The poorer classes have now suffered this reality for over three decades, and they’re starting to point at culprits, with the enthusiastic assistance of opportunist politicians. Donald Trump is one of them. To a complex problem, he offers a simple solution: Central Americans are offering to work for low pay, so let’s build a wall to stop them. Companies are moving factories abroad, so let’s raise tariffs through the roof so they’ll be stuck at home.

It’s because Trump proposes simplistic and economically destructive stuff like this that he’s met with skepticism by the corporate elite. He’s one of them, and they may like his ideas on taxation, but they’ve also benefited greatly by globalization. Their employees are fragmented, unorganized and in brutish competition with each other. Bosses don’t want it to stop, and they don’t want to be stuck inside (or outside) the US’s borders. Prison owners and weapons manufacturers can be unequivocally happy that Trump’s in. Others are less secure.

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Share price of weapons manufacturer BAE through the election

And they’re not the only ones, of course. Since economic populism only gets you so far, a far more zealous force has been harnessed by Trump and other authoritarian populists: White supremacy. No political force is as potent as the feeling of being cornered and in danger. People haven’t been invoking the “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” and “Sharia law taking over” for nothing. We have to be under attack to accept radical solutions, and for such a historically privileged group as whites, especially male whites, any loss of superiority is seen as an affront.

Muslims have been made the human manifestation of terrorism, Mexicans of job losses, blacks of the erosion of equal opportunity. These inaccurate caricatures meet Hillary Clinton, who is seen as the perfect representative of a political elite that not only doesn’t care about whites, but allows those Muslims and Mexicans and blacks to trample all over the American Dream. People who might as well be terrorists, rapists and criminals – and who are easily identifiable by skin color and language – are cutting in line, getting benefits they don’t deserve and an easy ride, aided by the political elites. Obama is shoving these people into places that white Americans wanted and worked for. The personal and racial discrimination that is pointed at to justify affirmative action is lost on whites. They’re not racist, they will say, they just want a level playing field. And to prove how corrupt the system is, they only need to point at Clinton, her speeches to Goldman Sachs, and her familial advantage in being nominated.

Lock Them Up!
It must be admitted, the gall with which power is passed hereditarily in the US is something to behold. Remember, if the favored establishment candidates had won their respective primaries this year, we’d have had a Bush-Clinton race. Bush the third against Clinton the second. As a hyperventilating Trump-supporter said on Sky news on election night: “This is not supposed to be a monarchy”. Perhaps people could swallow such passings of the throne while they weren’t being violently shafted by the system. The Kennedys were tolerable, for instance, during the Golden Age of Capitalism. But now the system isn’t merely dysfunctional anymore – it’s starting to look like an aristocracy.

Capitalism has always been touted as a fair playing ground, where your achievements are based on merit and hard work. This, of course, is a fantasy, but it explains why people react to the formation of aristocracy with shouts of “corruption!”

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In the Philippines, people are also sick of corruption. Over there it has become so widespread that bribing is practically part of due process in any official dealings. People have felt the frustration of everyday oppression. And then, along came Duterte: the near-mafioso mayor of Davao, known for making extraordinary promises and then delivering on them. There’s a famous story of how a tourist smoked in a bar in Davao after Duterte had banned public smoking. The owner of the bar called Duterte, and the mayor himself showed up and made the tourist swallow the cigarette butt. He is now President of the Philippines, and has supervised a mass-murder of drug-dealers. Drugs are the key to much of Filipino corruption, and despite the horrific way in which Duterte’s puritan policy is unfolding, and the many innocent victims, his approval ratings are extraordinarily high. “This isn’t nice,” Filipinos seem to be saying, “but at least he’s doing something that works.”

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A victim of the anti-drug massacres, allegedly a drug dealer

It’s not just in the Philippines that human rights are being sidelined by expediency. Britain is threatening to scrap the Human Rights Act. African countries are withdrawing from the International Court of Justice. Asylum rights in Europe are being eroded, now that Muslims claim them in large numbers.

The basket of the insecure
Human rights may have seemed like natural law, but they’re a relatively recent principle, easily destroyed. Their psychological basis hasn’t been much discussed, even though it is fundamental to their preservation. It goes roughly like this: If you believe you have nothing to fear from strangers, your natural empathy has room to express itself. If you fear strangers, you look to your tribe, or “in-group”, for protection. A safe and secure society rests on all of us having food, shelter and peace. It is eroded when we have to fear for our lives, when we feel that we’re in mortal competition with our neighbors or other societies.

What our elites have missed is just how many of us have started to feel this way. They hate the insecure for abandoning tolerance and human rights, call them “deplorables” for their fear and anger. What they don’t want to admit is that they’ve created the society which fosters it.

Killing Ludd
All of these problems, of course, have solutions. The most forward-looking response I’ve come across is universal basic income, which guarantees that technological disruption doesn’t destroy people’s lives.

In the past, whole movements have sprung up to violently fight technology, because of the unemployment it created. In Britain, they called themselves Luddites. The followers of the imaginary “King Ludd” broke the mechanical knitting machines that were “stealing their jobs”. The Frame-Breaking Act of 1812 made such behavior punishable by death.

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Frame-breakers Taking Back Control

A similar movement tried to prevent industrial agriculture in Spain in the 1930s, but was halted when the workers’ revolution allowed them to control the farms in their own preferred way. They stopped burning the trucks and tractors, knowing they could keep their jobs and just work less. Small-scale social security pacified King Ludd.

It will be a while until basic income becomes an acceptable concept in rich countries, where it’s most viable. The World Bank estimates that a large portion of our jobs can be automated, something most of us already know from experience. Our countries have become richer without wages rising, and in Europe unemployment has increased. Benefits will have to be payed out to keep people from revolting, unless a drastic militarization of police is employed instead.

The wealth is there for basic income, but it’s in the hands of people who’d rather not part with it. This is why authoritarian populism of the Trump-variety has an easier path to power than humane left-wing redistribution. The left wing has richer enemies.

Some have said that Trump’s victory shows the risks of democracy. On the contrary. It shows the risks of not listening to your population, not being responsive to their will. It shows how democracy will always, eventually, defeat any political cartel. But the longer you keep it down, the more distorted it will look when it finally breaks out.

If the modern world is to remain a livable place, something other than more intensive capitalism will have to be implemented. If Donald Trump retains the White House for eight years, that seems unlikely. It’s up to the rest of the world to do something more sane. It’s time for another twist.

The movement to Take Back Control