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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Last winter I thought about becoming a fascist to be trendy and hip, and to join the movement “before it was cool”. Now, somewhat faster than expected, it’s gone mainstream. Apparently it’s last call for hipsters – dig out those leather boots, put on your stiffer jackets, beef up and button up, heat your heads and freeze your hearts!
Yesterday was another one of those confirmations of how distant elite politics have become from most non-rich people. The forgotten ones have known full-well that they couldn’t compete in buying off politicians, so they didn’t vote, or voted for Whatever. But now things have changed. Corruption isn’t the only game in town anymore. Finally some Strong Leaders are on offer to break through the Class Ceiling.
Broadly, of course, you have to Beat Them or Join Them. But there are some variations in how you do that.
If you want to keep up with Optimistic Elitism – ways to sustain the defunct system for a few more years – then this is the time to study the impeachment process, and to guess at what policies Mike Pence, Trump’s VP, will enact, once he gets the chance. If Trump is sidelined by the Republican houses, Pence is The Man.
It’s entirely possible, too, that the Buffoon Elect will leave his more complicated policies entirely up to Pence anyway, since Pence can successfully construct a grammatical sentence.
In case Optimistic Elitism fails, you can always put on your monocle and lean back with a quill pen, and imagine the next years are a high-stakes experiment in checks and balances. I’ve heard the Southern Hemisphere will be relatively unaffected by a nuclear winter, which is a big plus in academic studies.
The most constructive job, however, would be to get democratic redistribution going, both within and between societies. But the people who need it don’t want “help”. They want “justice” and “fairness” – no handouts. We need a noble lie to cover up the necessary socialism.
I think I’m going for all three. I hear the Philippines are interesting this time of the year – this time, when the most murderous part of the anti-corruption drive is over. There’s a very entertaining Strong Leader there as well, a sort of a Ghost of Christmas Future. And the Philippines are but a stone’s throw from the Southern Hemisphere, in case worse comes to worst.
A few years back, Eric Hobsbawm pointed out that big business would happily have open borders. It wasn’t capitalism that closed borders, but racism. “The sheer force of xenophobia,” he wrote, “is indicated by the fact that the ideology of globalized free-market capitalism” has “utterly failed to establish the free international movement of labour,” while dead stuff is hurled across borders continuously.
But corporations have made do with what they got. Their restraints loosened, they escaped the domination of governments. They have merrily roamed the globe, extracting wealth here, hiding money from taxation there. Being able to get hold of riches anywhere and hide them wherever is a very effective accumulation method. Inequality has shot up, government capture by the wealthy is near-complete. Disoriented populations vote for whoever takes aim at the “system”, however ill-founded their reasoning.
Last Thursday, Bank of America Merrill Lynch released a report aimed at investors. It details how “nations are becoming less willing to cooperate, more willing to contest.” The globe is fracturing. The pressures on single states are in every day’s news: Unemployment won’t die, growth won’t arise from the ashes of the Recession. “671 rate cuts since Lehman bankruptcy has fostered neither robust economic recovery nor ‘animal spirits’ as corporations & households continue to hoard cash,” the report’s authors go on to say.
Growth, simply put, has to come from people buying things. But people’s wages have been squeezed for so long – and unemployment spread so thoroughly – that we are, collectively, not buying enough.
In any sane society, that wouldn’t be a problem. Our determined overconsumption has long been destroying the planet. But the economic system that has arisen behind our backs makes overconsumption necessary for people to stay in jobs, and thus survive. And Bank of America has ideas about how jobs will be created for us. There will be “a shift toward Keynesian policy,” of government buying things and employing people, as a Consumer of Last Resort.
This could have been done with all the money that was showered on the crashed banks in 2008, but priorities being what they are, the wealthy had to come first. It took Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, AfD and Marine le Pen for the “system” to realize that trickle-up economics are causing a riot.
As a PowerPoint slide by the Bank of America puts it, the turn of the “99%”, “socialism” and “protectionism” has arrived. The “slow heartbeat of the social organism” will, in the words of historians Ariel and Will Durant, alleviate inequality – in “violent or peacable contractions.”
The “violent contractions” could have been averted. Globalization is a good thing if borders are open to people, if corporations are held to democratic account, and if wealth isn’t kept in only a very few hands.
But, as Hobsbawm said, xenophobia is a resilient demon. Capitalism doesn’t stand a chance against the mass-hysteria of racism. Now a mass-hysteria of poverty, stagnation and disenfranchisement is hitting at capitalism, too. But with a very bad aim.
We don’t know yet whether the contractions of our societies, that will redistribute society’s wealth, will be peaceful or violent. The militarized police of the USA are doing their best to make inequality end up in war. Europe has a different history and different values. However, the European Union has also for decades made up rules that forbid it from reacting sensibly. Europe has forbidden itself control over the economy, and it has to take it back. Sadly, the only mavericks who dare to propose that are either racists whom we try to ignore or leftists who get beaten down.
People all over the Western world are seeing the same choices as countless others have throughout history. Work or riot. The ballot or the bullet. There are interesting times ahead. Take cover.
In June 2014, an unorthodox No Borders meeting took place in the Middle East. A bulldozer droned through the arid Mesopotamian desert, crashing through a sand barrier. A flimsy video was made of the event, later shown far and wide across the region. The bulldozer had physically removed the century-old frontier between Iraq and Syria. The dividing line had been planned in secret by England and France, who split the Arab world between themselves while promising Arabs self-rule. This border symbolized European arrogance and domination, and now it was being irreverently crashed apart by Arabs.
Of course, the people that finally overcame this arbitrary European division weren’t anarchist visionaries, but millenarian zealots. ISIS had done what decades of simmering Arab nationalism couldn’t, and it loudly proclaimed the fact. The local name of “Islamic State in Iraq and the Greater Levant” was broadened to “Islamic State”. No borders, no nations – only one worldwide caliphate.
The immediate result wasn’t quite what was hoped for. Instead of the worldwide Islamic community rallying round, they literally ran away. A wave of refugees fled in all directions. In the ensuing battles of Syria, a small proportion even fled to Europe. It didn’t matter that Europe had ruined their countries. At least they would be safe there.
This is the latter of two lectures about these events, about the human migrations of recent years, and their historical underpinnings. In the first part we saw how Arabic and other refugees were betrayed and their human rights ignored in order to close the doors of Europe. In this lecture we’ll look at what brought us here. It’s a history that takes us from European ownership of the Third World to corporate ownership of their wealth, and how that wealth trickles down ever slower to Europeans and their descendants abroad. It is a story of fascism, and the stepping stones that lead to it.
1 Going South
Night fell as Columbus found America. It was a windy day in October 1492, and one of his ships had spotted land. Columbus kept his fleet waiting until morning, and then went there on a small boat. His crew saw some “naked people” there, he later wrote in his diary. But no matter. “Before all others,” Columbus proudly wrote, he “took possession of that island for the King and Queen.”
In his first thoughts upon the nude inhabitants of the New World, Christopher Columbus wrote that they were well-built but poor, intelligent but ignorant. “It appears to me,” he wrote, that they “would be good servants,” and since they seemed to have no religion, “they would very readily become Christians.”
The good people of Hispaniola were promptly enslaved and made to dig up their islands’ gold for Spaniards to export. Within a few decades, “European diseases and brutal working conditions” had “devastated the indigenous population,” which withered by the hundreds of thousands. To replace the natives, black slaves were brought in from Africa – to make sugar for European tea.
After three hundred years of indescribable brutality in the name of sweet refreshments, the slaves on Hispaniola mounted a revolution, taking their cue from the revolution in France. The Paris government was not amused. Instead of welcoming the black people’s thirst for freedom, it instead attacked and blackmailed Port-au-Prince. When the former slaves declared the republic of Haiti independent in 1804, their ports were blockaded. Fearing that the example of slave freedom might spread, the US followed Spain and France in embargoing the battered little country.
No nation can live on justice alone. In 1825, France sent warships to Haiti and demanded that the former slaves compensate France for its loss, for having so mindlessly stolen themselves from their owners. The price, France told them, was 150 million francs ($21bn). Haiti was forced to accede, so “instead of investing in infrastructure and developing a national economy and social services, the Haitian government was forced to send all available cash to France, and the world’s first black republic descended into a debt from which it has not yet recovered.”
Colonial inheritance At the end of the 19th century, Europe laid claim to most of the world. European nations were industrializing and becoming rich beyond the dreams of avarice. As they attained their riches, they made sure that their colonies would remain open to their exports. Thus they could import raw materials from there, use their industries to make them valuable, and then sell the product all over the world.
What finally shattered this marvelous setup was the fiercest war in history, where European nations – the pinnacle of civilization – slaughtered each other in history’s largest bloodbath. Crippled by this misstep, Europe lost its position as dominatrix of the world. That position was now granted to the United States, untouched by the disasters of war. Swooning over America’s newfound powers, staff at the US State Department started planning what a world under US control would look like.
The “two great workshops” of Japan and Germany, they wrote, were to be reconstructed with US financing along with Western Europe. European social reforms were abandoned, fascist officials rehabilitated and organized labor broken down. Much of the rest of the world was then shunted into the US sphere of influence, where it was to “fulfill its major function as a source of raw materials and a market for Japan and Western Europe,” in the words of the State Department planner George Kennan.
Kennan was referring to Southeast Asia in particular, where the anticolonial struggle of the Vietnamese against their French masters was coming to an end. The Vietnamese nationalists defeated the French colonial forces in 1954, and were set to gain glorious independence. That was not how the US had planned its future. The US Foreign Secretary offered “two atomic bombs” to France to bring Vietnamese reluctance to an end, which they refused. So it was that the US stepped into their shoes, starting their Vietnam war. It would last two decades and spread over three countries, eventually killing millions, mostly civilians.
The reason for this policy was simple. The US “supported conservative regimes opposed to radical nationalism,” as a National Security Council report put it at the time. The spirit of nationalism, of independence, wasn’t allowed to spread – it had to be bombed away. Examples of similar course-correction by the US litter the historical record, in all continents except Antarctica. Nationalism cannot be tolerated – secession from the international order is forbidden.
Nowhere has this been clearer than in the countries which produce the most fundamental resource of the global economy – oil. To understand the roots of ISIS, and the instabilities they grew in, it’s useful to look at the recent history of Iran and Iraq.
Iran exits twice
In 1951, Iran produced a large chunk of Middle Eastern oil. The “black gold” was pumped out of the ground and exported by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now called BP. Iranians, of course, weren’t too happy about this arrangement. To mend it, a new party ran for parliament with a revolutionary plan: To nationalize the oil wells and keep the profits for Iranians. The party won the elections on a massive wave of popular support. Finally, Iranians thought, we control our own destiny.
Britain reacted furiously. Iranian ports were blockaded, export from Britain to Iran was forbidden, sanctions were imposed. The Iranian economy crashed, its population suffered harshness over several years. To make the message clear, the British government moved paratroopers, destroyers and military reinforcements to the region.
Finally, the CIA was brought to bear on the country. They made an “all-out effort”, executing an “orchestrated program of destabilization”, in the words of CIA operatives. The nationalist government was finally overthrown in 1953. A pleasingly subservient autocratic ruler was put in place who terrorized the political opposition, torturing and killing thousands over the next twenty-five years. In return for the US’s assistance, Britain gave several United States companies a share of the oil exports.
The New York Times editorialized proudly about these events: “Underdeveloped countries with rich resources” had now learned a “lesson,” the paper said. They would not go “berserk with fanatical nationalism” so mindlessly again. This would, the paper’s editors hoped, encourage “more reasonable” leadership in the future.
What finally brought down the US-supported autocrat was an exceptionally popular and effective revolution in 1979 that quickly established an Islamic theocracy. Decades of the Western-supported oppression and mass-torture had prepared the ground for a religious fascism.
Turning to Saddam
The US, shocked at this repeated disobedience of the Iranian people, switched allegience to their neighbor – Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The US government fueled a war between the two countries for eight years. Then Hussein disobeyed them in 1990 by taking over oil wells in Kuwait. Those wells, the British Foreign Secretary had stated in 1958, had “at all costs” to be “kept in Western hands”. Even if the West didn’t “exercise physical control”, they had to be prepared “ruthlessly to intervene, whoever it is has caused the trouble.” So Britain and the US invaded and took them back. This provoked the fury of Osama bin Laden, who had wanted Muslims to conduct the defense on their own, and he vowed to avenge this imposition of infidels on sacred soil.
Economic warfare took over after the invasion, leading to immense suffering and a half-million unnecessary child deaths in Iraq. Those sanctions were left in place until the US invaded the country again in 2003, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, again to safeguard and increase oil production.
While securing oil wells was a priority for the invading army, building a functioning state wasn’t. The result was a catastrophic civil breakdown. Humiliation of Arab prisoners by the white invaders was epitomized by the Abu Ghraib photographs. The Guantanamo bay torture facility and the secret CIA program to fly prisoners to torturing US client regimes with European assistance gave further evidence of the West’s degradation.
In a process reminiscent of the Iranian revolution, though by far more intense, chaotic and violent, these humiliations and civil catastrophes made resistance against the US-backed Iraqi government seem not merely appropriate, but necessary. A revolution didn’t happen, since there wasn’t really a functioning state to take control of, but an alternate power structure developed in the north of Iraq. As the Arab revolutions broke down the established powers of the Middle East and North Africa, ISIS removed the Syrian-Iraqi border. After decades of relentless violence, the ruins of a society gave rise to the modern nightmare: to religious fascism.
2 Debts and the dying
While millions upon innocent millions have been sacrificed to maintain colonial economics in a postcolonial world, less violent ways have often sufficed. The fundamental principle is that of discipline by debt. Those countries who owe money are told what to do by international institutions – most conspicuously the IMF. The fact that the origin of Third World indebtedness is often odious is irrelevant. Given that the West lends most of the money, and that Europe and the US control the IMF, it would seem that this is not an economic system based on justice. It is, instead, a tool of structural violence.
Heavy debt is dangerous. After the Great War, the world’s foremost economist warned against imposing large fines on the losers. It would be “a menace to financial stability everywhere,” since “a debtor nation does not love its creditor”. His advice was not taken. Germany was made to surrender its economy in the Versailles Treaty, pushed into a financial trap that “contributed to the Great Depression” and led “indirectly to the rise of fascism,” as economist Jeffrey Sachs notes.
The resulting Second World War destroyed much of Europe’s economic advantage, to the US’s great benefit. To maintain Europe, both as a market and an ally, the US government gave it money – rather than lending it – for reconstruction. The rest of the world, trying to recover from their decolonization struggles, wasn’t as lucky. Their indebtedness was maintained.
When those Third World countries have run into repayment problems, for example when a dictator absconds with the country’s money, the IMF enters the scene. Loans are offered so the government can pay the banks back, but to get the loans, the indebted country has to privatize public institutions, reduce social spending, open up its economy to foreign goods, loosen workers’ protections and, of course, repay the money. This is, more or less, a way to ensure that raw materials get exported more readily, and to have the population ready for cheap work in foreign companies.
This sort of program works wonders for the rich countries, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that they control the institutions that impose it. Western companies get to sell their products more easily, produce them more cheaply in poor countries, and can buy foreign state businesses and raw materials. Meanwhile large banks get their odious loans repaid. The losers are the populations and the ecology of the subject countries.
Ironically, the heavily indebted poor countries are those that have for centuries been robbed by the former colonial powers. It was their wealth that fueled the West’s industrial revolution. Still, debt relief for those countries is normally seen only as a remote possibility. Restitutions by the West to the former colonies, however, is a taboo subject, and all such requests have been quashed and ridiculed. It does not matter how thoroughly the requests are argued, they’re simply dismissed. It’s not a discussion, you see. It’s wealth and privilege demonstrating its power.
To give but a flavor of the demands made, an African reparations committee claimed $777 trillion from the West in 1999. And to give a flavor of the Western response: When asked by Jamaicans in 2015 about slavery reparations, the British Prime Minister instead told them to thank Britain for its role in abolishing slavery – the slavery it had itself kept going for centuries! During the same visit, he promised to send Jamaicans £25 million, though; to build a prison which Britain could deport Jamaican criminals into.
More seriously, in 2003, the popularly elected nationalist President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, requested that France repay Haitians these billions of dollars. France flatly rejected. A year later Aristide was deposed in a coup and replaced by a government that didn’t make such discourteous demands.
Perpetrating these policies doesn’t come without consequences. For instance, given the unrelenting US-sponsored murders, invasions, coups, land-grabbing and militarization in Latin America, it is no wonder that these countries emit countless refugees. Many of them try to get to the United States. Nearly half a million people enter Mexico from Central America every year on their way to Big Brother up north. The majority are deported “back to dangerous homes,” the FT reports.
But Mexico isn’t acting alone. “The US is coy about its role in Mexico’s crackdown,” the FT’s report continues, though it sends “$75m in equipment and training to help stop Central Americans from crossing illegally into Mexico.” Mexico’s gonna build a wall – and the US will pay for it.
Mr Ghaddafi – tear down that boat!
European nations have attempted similar arrangements with their own neighbors. In 2008, Italy made a pact with Muammar Gaddafi, the “Friendship Pact”. It allowed Italy to summarily deport anyone they found arriving illegally from Libya, without bothering with any asylum requests at all. This clearly broke international law, being a clear-cut example of a push-back policy, but no matter. As for Libya’s treatment of the refugees, the man in charge of immigrants in Gaddafi’s regime told Human Rights Watch with eye-popping bluntness that “There are no refugees in Libya.”
Still, the EU was eager to expand the cooperation, and Gaddafi knew why: Europe didn’t want to turn “black”. He elaborated: “We don’t know what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans.”
Eager to protect themselves against the black scourge, Spain’s government made an attempt at a similar agreement with the Kingdom of Morocco in 2014, and the EU has a long-standing relationship with the Western African countries – and countries further afield – to have them keep their migrants at home.
An enormous blow to these arrangements came in 2011, as the Arab revolutions swept the EU’s negotiating partners from power. In some countries, war followed as well, adding to the number of people fleeing. Still, Europe perseveres. They admittedly do not focus on helping the victims, but have established new migration-blocking partnerships.
After Gaddafi’s death, Libya rapidly disintegrated into civil war. In order to have someone to negotiate with, an unelected UN-backed government was set up… in Tunisia. Two parliaments already exist in Libya, both of whom rejected the new government (and each other). No government seems to have legitimacy there. But that’s not really important. What matters most is that these 32 people were moved from Tunisia into a navy base in Tripoli, and are called “the Libyan government” in respectable circles. They can now give the EU legal permission to readmit migrants from Libya, and intervene militarily in Libyan waters against “refugee boats” and on Libyan soil against ISIS.
Not trade, but blackmail Fortunately, the EU normally isn’t forced to stoop so low. It is in fact more fond of “using money to make third countries more cooperative.” Accordingly, the EU Commission put forth a plan in October 2015 to use “incentives and pressure” to “enhance cooperation” of foreign governments – bend them to its will.
An indication of what this might look like was given by some leaked documents the following spring. Wishing to deport 80,000 Afghans, the Commission hatched a plan to get Kabul to accept them. The Afghan government hadn’t been playing along, the Commission complained. Cooperation on deportations had been “difficult and uneven” because some in the Afghan government “do not appear to facilitate the return of irregular migrants”.
But a solution was within reach. Since the government of President Ghani was “highly aid dependent,” it was “unlikely” that it would survive without the EU’s financial help. The President just had to be told that to keep the money flowing, the Afghan government would “by early summer” have to prove “that Afghanistan is a reliable partner” in accepting “forced returns”.
Planning blackmail and bribes on this order is time-consuming. To make deportations more efficient, Europe tries to deport everyone back to the country they came through, not from. Since most come by boat, legal realities have been amended to create “a parallel regime for migrants found at sea” that aims at “expedient and summary returns … outside a comprehensive human rights framework.”
Killing also works
Instances of this new barely legal reality are the March 20 agreement with Turkey, the 2008 pact with Libya, and the never-ending dealings with the Kingdom of Morocco. Amnesty International has reported that the Spanish government doesn’t even try to hide its illegal push-backs to the Kingdom, “but instead tries to convince the world that they are lawful and are not in breach of Spain’s national or international obligations”. Harsher yet, leaked documents from the European border guard, Frontex, suggest that shooting live rounds at refugees in rubber boats is accepted operating practice by European coast guard officials.
But clearly, the end goal is to keep migrants away from the border completely. Thus, in a gasp of desperation, the EU Commission released a proposal this summer. To stop migration, it said, it was “necessary to provide assistance to the militaries of partner countries.”
One of those countries is Sudan, whose president is wanted for genocide. His militia has already arrested refugees on their way to Libya and deployed troops along the Libyan border to stop people going there. One may wonder what else the militia will do with the EU money, given that it’s responsible for “killings, rape, torture, mass displacement, destruction of property, and looting of livestock—that may amount to crimes against humanity.” But that is simply a burden that the Sudanese will have to bear for the greater good.
It becomes clear, looking at these issues, that Europe has a strange policy: If refugees make it into Northern Europe, they get good legal treatment – probably the best in the world. But while they are outside, the EU will do everything it can – including breaking the law – to keep them away.
3 Immigrants and fascism
It wasn’t always like this. After the Second World War, Europe blossomed. A thundering economic upswing in France and Germany in the ’50s and ’60s drove unemployment down to nothing. Labor-import agreements were made with countries like Turkey and Morocco. France let its former colonial subjects travel freely into France and work. No attempts were made to assimilate them, though, because were expected to leave when the work dried up. In Germany, they were called guest-workers (Gastarbeiter). By 1973, there were 7.5 million non-citizens in Europe. Then the economy crashed. With rising unemployment, Germany and France tried to get rid of the foreigners.
These attempts didn’t work, to say the least. Instead of leaving, the guest-workers told their families to come immediately, before it was too late. Those who were inside Europe were now determined not to leave, in case they’d be forbidden from coming again. The natural migration of people was frozen. Europe had locked in its foreigners by attempting to lock them out.
In 1985, European nations started removing internal borders. As those borders fell, the external ones were tightened. Eastern Europe became the preferred source of cheap labor. When the civil wars of the Soviet breakdown emitted a wave of refugees, Western Europe responded by tightening other sources of migration. It was about this time, in the ’80s, that anti-immigrant parties started to gain ground. People feared that the immigrants were stealing jobs, lowering wages, increasing unemployment, mixing blood with the whites. Indeed, Tony Judt writes that immigration after the 1973 crash was restricted “for both economic and political reasons,” since “rapid urban growth and subsequent economic stagnation” are a recipe for disaster, and that it was only Europe’s “systems of social welfare” that prevented things from becoming “explosive”.
However, most economic analyses indicate that immigration is in more or less every way good, not bad. (An overview is offered in Ian Goldin’s Exceptional People.) The nationalism that has greeted recent waves of immigration in Europe is not, it seems, based in economic fact. Instead, it seems that times of insecurity and want make people’s thinking more simplistic, tribal and emotional. Europe’s famous values of tolerance are, after all, results of economic security. Now these underpinnings of a sane society are being eroded.
Ironically, of course, Europe got its wealth – the foundation of its security and stability – by fostering and feeding on catastrophic instability abroad. To take but one example; the former French colony of Algeria. Algeria is of great importance to Europe – it exports almost nothing but oil, and most of it goes to Europe. France made Algeria pay for its independence in rivers of blood.
In 1992, an Islamic nationalist government was on its way to power in the Algerian elections on a promise of “wealth redistribution, taking from the rich to provide for the needs of the people.” To prevent it, the army staged a coup, thus gaining the support of numerous EU development funds. In the resulting civil war, hundreds of thousands died. A journalist called those deaths “Europe’s gas bill.”
Policies such as these backfired catastrophically around 2011, in the revolutions of the Middle East and North Africa. These enormous popular movements shattered the governments that Europe relied on to give them oil and keep migration under control. While the EU could probably have dealt with that on its own, another crisis hit it at the same time – the debt of Greece.
Democracy, cradle to grave
Greece had acquired massive debt to finance corruption and glory-projects. Now its impending default threatened to destroy the euro. Nothing could save the Greek financial situation, but a huge game of pretend was started. Whenever a loan was due, the Greek government got another huge loan from the EU and the IMF – and wired the money straight to French and German banks. Hey presto, the loan was repaid, no default! The financial risk was transferred from the banks to the Northern European taxpayers, the impossible repayment left to the Greek public.
In return, Greece had to do the full IMF program: Cut spending and privatize, lower pensions, lessen workers’ protections. A referendum on those terms was forbidden. Suicides, homelessness and joblessness skyrocketed and the economy has gone from awfulness to misery. It’s the Third World treatment all over again.
The results have been predictably similar. In 2015, a government was elected that promised to Take Back Control – stop austerity and fix the crisis on Greeks’ own terms. The EU balked. “New elections change nothing,” Wolfgang Schäuble, the EU’s top negotiator, said. After months of extremely hardline negotiations, Greece was offered an even worse deal than at the beginning. Greeks rejected it in a referendum, but their “Take Back Control” government accepted it anyway.
The utter irrelevance of Greeks in the whole drama has become even clearer since. The IMF has told the EU that the Greek debt will have to be reduced. The debt will never be repayed anyway, and the current programs are literally killing Greeks, along with any chance of future economic revival. Wolfgang Schäuble said the IMF was indeed “correct,” that a “haircut” of the debt was necessary. However, he added, “there cannot be a haircut because it would infringe the system of the European Union.”
This “system” has many tentacles, and its catastrophic effects go far beyond Greece. The same austerity programs have been imposed, with less drama, on Spain and Italy, for instance. In both countries, populist parties now promise to Take Back Control. These parties awaken elite fear, not only in the EU’s institutions, but also in the governments of these indebted countries. (Yanis Varoufakis, former Finance Minister of Greece, said the “greatest nightmare” of the Italian and Spanish governments was that Greece would get a better deal than them. It would have posed the question “why they didn’t negotiate like we were doing.”)
Even in the EU’s heartland, France, the “system” is causing disaster. France currently breaks the EU’s spending rules, by spending much more than it earns – as most countries do in crises. To get away with it without being punished, it has to prove to the EU Commission that it’s trying to mend its ways. The European Commission requested that France’s worker protections be loosened. And so they were. A new labor law was proposed that would make firing people easier, would reduce overtime and severance pay, and generally make work less dependable and rewarding. The law, the government said, would be forced through parliament by decree – and it was, despite months of enormously popular and massively obstructive protests and strikes.
It’s not just the eurozone that has imposed these restrictions on itself. Even the British Chancellor of the Exchequer attempted to impose spending rules to make sure any change in government wouldn’t cause a change in fiscal policy. The rules were so strict, he couldn’t even keep to them himself. Broadly speaking, this drive to austerity and “liberalization” has been happening for a few decades. After the economic crash in 2008, however, it went for broke.
The Financial Times’ Martin Wolf said of these austerity measures that there was “no evidence” that they increased confidence or growth. Instead, they did “exactly what one would expect”, namely, produce recessions or depressions. But austerity does other things very well. It privatizes public institutions. It lessens social spending. It breaks down workers’ rights. It is, in short, to the benefit of large businesses.
Populism, left and right
Both in Europe and the US, politicians are now offering change (even “change we can believe in”) or to make our nations Great Again, or to make them reclaim their independence. They are responding to an actual problem, namely massive and widespread economic insecurity and stagnation. These are problems that go hand in hand with steep inequality of wealth. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to respond to it; with redistribution or oppression. Sharing the wealth with the plebs or buying mercenaries to keep them down.
Giving the lower classes a share of society’s wealth is part of the “slow heartbeat of the social organism”, where “concentration of wealth” is “periodically alleviated by violent or peacable contractions,” in the words of historians Will and Ariel Durant. It varies just how violent the “contractions” become, if the “system” doesn’t redistribute on its own.
As we’ve seen, the violent contractions in the Third World have expressed themselves as nationalistic calls for taking control of the country’s wealth. This is, of course, natural in resource-rich countries, where everyone can see where the money’s at. In industrialized nations, it’s more complex. There, a strong hand is begged for to fight the brutalities of globalized industry – by closing the borders to foreigners, and to companies who want to leave the country, by setting up state-funded megaprojects and by stopping international cooperation.
Retribution The European Union is now, albeit very reluctantly, proposing a small step towards a European social safety net. It’s the elite’s admission that its subjects are scarily insecure, too insecure for comfort. The proposals themselves are nothing to speak of, much too small to matter. It’s just too damn hard to establish public institutions and welfare improvements these days. As Wolfgang Schäuble implied, and the Greek experience shows, the “system” isn’t made for it. The world has been designed for business control and the concentration of wealth. Not for public well-being.
Given the difficulty of redistribution, it’s no wonder populists have had more success with xenophobia. Bombarding an economically insecurepopulation with racism works. And it’s easy. If you threaten an enormously wealthy elite with a program of redistribution, you have made a powerful enemy. If you threaten to close the borders to refugees, your enemies are mostly penniless foreigners, and mostly elsewhere.
The reasons for the current South-to-North migrations are deep and complex. Recently, the morbid catastrophes of the Middle East have bred an extreme Islamic Fascism, ISIS, which makes people both flee the Middle East and makes Europeans fear those fleeing. “We’re running away from ISIS” meets “Don’t bring your problems here.” But, on a deeper level, the West’s longstanding methods of violent economic management are simply coming home to roost. Preparing the ground for the apocalyptic fascism of ISIS took a long time. The racism that greets Middle Eastern refugees in Europe also has centuries of European domination to build on. It will take a long time to fix this.
Most people aren’t aware of the history that propels them. But some are aware, and simply feel trapped. The EU has made rules which forbid it from solving its economic crisis, and it has powerful interests that keep those rules from changing. And those rules are producing a racist, self-sabotaging, victim-blaming society.
Just as it has proven impossible to fight ecological disaster while putting profits first, it’s impossible to demand sanity of a scared population. It doesn’t help that European politicians say again and again that there’s “no plan B“, “no alternative” and “no other way“. It’s an admission of failure, with no way out – a trap.
While politicians respond to crises by saying matters are out of their control, they can bet on large popular movements that want control over their lives again. Any humane response to stagnation and migration will be suffocated by the Masses of the Fearful, who don’t want to lose their meager privileges. While we remain trapped, the specter of fascism will haunt our societies – promising to make us matter again.