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.
As summer ended in 2015, Europe was rattled by a series of mass-movements across its borders. The moving masses weren’t European, they weren’t in cars or planes and hadn’t received authorization to move. Instead, they did it all by themselves, on their own initiative, on foot. This is how they were received.
The year-long agony that has overcome Europe since can easily be summarized: Give in to the inevitable, contain it, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. The crisis of free movement for refugees seemed to have begun in 2015, and it seems to have finished now that the borders of Europe are closed again. These appearances are deceptive. The crisis of 2015 was only a minor protrusion into the European consciousness of a cataclysm that has lasted decades, if not centuries. The mass-movements in Europe in 2015 were in fact not a crisis but the relief of one. By closing the borders – ineffectively, but with determination – the pressure has been put on again.
This is the first of two lectures, aimed at putting the European crisis into its proper historical and political place. This first part follows the events of this winter, as witnessed from a pawn in the volunteer movement. It’ll be interspersed with notes on the political developments that determined the course of events. The driving forces behind those developments will be fleshed out in the second lecture, which deals with the historical and economic backdrop of recent human migration.
My aim is to present how Europe’s colonial history, its bureaucratic structure, and the strange relationship we’ve established with the rest of the world are weaved together – and how they explain our reception of refugees. When they’ve been fully laid out, it should become clear how the specter of fascism arises from this sordid tapestry.
But we begin in a scrubby soup kitchen on a bright and beautiful little island in the Aegean sea.
A winter of dislocation
Going South For several years I’ve been interested and involved in the cause of refugees in Iceland. I’d also visited Greece after the great disaster of the OXI-referendum to investigate the mood in its aftermath. Seeing a great movement of refugees across this disastrously managed country was something I had to see – so I went to Greece at the end of November and in a couple of days found a soup-kitchen that needed assistance. It was in Samos, the third-largest entry-point for refugees into Greece after Lesvos and Chios.
For a few weeks, I assisted in soup-cooking, handing out several hundred meals every evening to all refugees who wanted them. The distributions could be very straining, tense and difficult, but also immense fun.
Soon we started noticing disturbing developments. A Moroccan, who was assisting in our kitchen, was taken away by police on December 17. When we checked at the police station, an old policeman told us he’d been arrested. Peering into a corridor revealed a room full of refugees -perhaps 50 in all. The policeman closed the door and hid them from sight. “We’re arresting all the North Africans now,” he said. “You know, really, it’s okay,” he explained. They would go to Athens into a closed detention camp. “It’s good for them, because they will have shelter and be processed there,” he went on. “They are going there because, you know, the North Africans are the ones responsible for the terrorist attacks in Paris.”
The day after, the arrests stopped. The prison was full.
I was in Chios while this went on, meeting a group of activists that would later open up a solidarity occupation. It would become a cafe where your papers, if you had any, didn’t matter. Such occupations were an explicit protest against segregation based on nationality, which by this time wasn’t just between refugees and non-refugees, or Europeans and non-Europeans, but also between different nationalities among the arrivals. It won’t come as a surprise to any student of divide-and-conquer tactics, or the human condition generally, that this would later breed ugly fights.
In light of this, it seemed important to me to take the focus off soup-cooking and to start preparing for a struggle against further segregation, isolation, imprisonment and deterrence of refugees. The borders out of Greece were tightening week by week and it seemed only a matter of time before they’d close altogether. I went to Athens to try to build some sort of activist network.
The reasons for the closures have been subject to much angry discussion, most of it about European racism. While that’s certainly part of it, another aspect has been mostly overlooked: the requirements of bureaucracy.
I have a paper, therefore I am
For decades, until 2015, the Greek state had followed an implicit (but very active) policy of ignoring the boat people. They weren’t registered in the Eurodac database, but simply allowed to pass through the country. That route now took them to Macedonia and up the Balkan corridor. This wasn’t to Europe’s liking. The cornerstone of internal freedom of movement in Europe is that everyone in the Schengen area has already been registered according to Schengen standards. A million undocumented people bursting into this standardized zone was a bureaucratic problem, no less than a racist one.
An interview with the head of Frontex this winter is illustrative. You’d expect him, the embodiment of Fortress Europe, to be a rabid anti-refugee agent – but no. “Fundamentally, I am of the opinion that we have to establish legal means for refugees to reach the EU,” he told Die Zeit in March. His reasoning was simple. His agency would have an easier time if there were fewer people trying to get in illegally. This is the logic of bureaucracy: Make registration simple, so people don’t try to skip it. It’s only when you combine the bureaucratic mindset with racism that you get the horrific policies of this winter.
One of them was manifested in a threat from the European Commission – under pressure from the North of Europe – against the southern border countries: Use force to fingerprint the refugees, or we’ll throw you out of Schengen. Greece complied, increasing the registration rate from 8% in September 2015 to 78% in January 2016.
Shoving aside volunteers
As the state strengthened its grip on the migration flow, harassment of volunteers became more frequent. In January, a member of the solidarity cafe in Chios was arrested and charged with espionage for taking a photo of a Frontex boat. The day after, five life-guards who had been dragging drowning people out of the ocean were arrested and charged with human trafficking. (Ironically, rescue workers are often suspected of human trafficking, while the only time most refugees are moved against their will is when they get deported by the state.) Seven volunteers had also been arrested for theft in Lesvos for collecting life-jackets from a trash heap. They had wanted to make softer beds for refugees.
I had by the end of January tried to facilitate volunteers’ organizations in Athens, with little success. To find more people, to learn and report, I went on a tour to visit the various crises caused by closing borders. Before leaving I wrote a plea to volunteers to look up from the blankets and soup and prepare for the worst.
An appeal, excerpted
We have been cooking soup, distributing blankets, giving information, warmth, food and hope. We’ve tried to bring a human face to the Balkan route. The support has been staggering, seeing the solidarity has been beautiful. But we are on the wrong track. While we are providing aid and saving lives on the ground, politicians up high in the glass towers of Brussels have been hard at work getting over their differences in order to contain, regulate, close up and slow down the arrival of foreigners in Europe. Migrants are step by step being put away in camps and prisons, contained like a disease, to protect Europe from exposure. This is the brutal face of bureaucracy and order, regulation and isolation, which tolerates no independent assistance, no independent information, no independent contact.
The micromanaging states of Europe want this disaster of irregularity, chaos and non-registration to end. Better a drowned refugee than an unregistered one. Better an imprisoned child than a smuggled one. Keep THEM in those white boxes and keep those white boxes in barbed-wire fences and have registered and ordered volunteers keep refugees in line. Sort them by nationality, gender, age, vulnerability, take their fingerprints and check just HOW MUCH they suffered, because we don’t accept just anyone here, you know. Write their number on their hand, tag their fingernails, count the cups of soup they get, stamp their papers, give them thirty days to get to Level 2 or it’s Game Over. Then their journey begins again, and when they get here next time, the open camp will be a detention center, the food-distributor a prison guard, the registration will be for a flight back home. And where will we, the soup-cookers and clothes-distributors, be then?
We have to be prepared for Europe to try, haphazardly and fumbling, but with the determination of a mad drunkard, to lock up refugees and stop their coming here. Europe’s two ventricles of racist society and control-freak bureaucracy reinforce each other, pumping their insidious ideology across the continent.
Europe has built itself assuming it was safe from foreigners. Now it’s in existential crisis. And as a rat stuck in a corner, it will rip apart anything and everything to save itself. It won’t spare any right, it will break any refugee, that stands in its way.
We have to be prepared for this. The state has benefited from our providing wet arrivals with dry clothes, giving hungry camp-dwellers food, distributing blankets to freezing people sleeping under the starry sky. But now we are in the way. We are giving people a reason to care. We are building relations with those who are not supposed to be here. Now we are the targets.
Europe is giving itself two months to save itself. What will we do?
Around the same time, the Greek minister for migration made a remarkable appearance on BBC Newsnight.
There are several noteworthy comments there. First there is the enthusiastic (and endlessly repeated) idea of “temporary camps”. While this sounds great, you have to remember that all refugee camps are called “temporary”. Virtually none of them are. They are always built under the pretense that they’re just about to go, even while people are born, live and die there. Whenever someone says “temporary refugee camp”, think twice.
Secondly, he makes a point about unilateralism. It had a special resonance in Greece at this time. Austria had invited other Balkan nations, but not Greece, to a crisis meeting about migration a few days earlier. Just before, also without consulting Greece, Austria set an upper limit to refugee intake at its borders. Greece was becoming a pariah in Europe.
Thirdly, notice that Mouzalas says the refugees would be prisoners. This was an ominous point which many volunteers were by now well aware of: The risk that the refugee flow would be stopped not with peace, but prisons.
Shutting the doors
The leper colony
Some fifty years ago, two thousand humans were brought to Leros in chains. They were people with mental, physical or social problems. The island, which had in older times been a leper colony, and had housed political prisoners under the fascist junta, was to become a storage for them.
With virtually no qualified care, the mentally ill were kept there – some chained down, some naked, some just rolling back and forth in their beds year after year.
Over the decades, thousands of inmates died there. A British mental health advocate commented, in the excellent 1990 film Island of Outcasts, that “it is called a hospital, and this leads one to feel that there might be doctors and nurses, and some form of care.” This, however, wasn’t the case. “It resembles far more a concentration camp.”
The film records the extraordinary degradation that people’s behavior suffers when subjected to violent oppression, our absolute breakdown when we are robbed of our dignity. It also shows how easy it is to distort benevolent institutions and turn them into butcheries of the human spirit.
For instance, the chief psychiatrist tried once to take several inmates from the worst part of the institution – the “Pavilion of the Naked” – and give them clothes, kind support and a beautiful, well-painted house to live in. Some of them regained speech and the capacity to feed themselves within days. The experiment was cut short due to lack of funding.
As late as 2009, the BBC noted that after twenty years there was “evidence that in some parts of the system little has changed.” A resident psychiatrist at an Athens clinic told the BBC that women were sometimes strapped down overnight with leather belts to prevent them walking about. “Just like a dog you tie up to stop it wandering off,” he said, adding that one could call this a “veterinary approach to psychiatry.” Some inmates, the BBC was told, might well end up tied to their bed for years due to staff shortages.
This history explains why it caught some attention in Greece when migration minister Mouzalas, in December 2015, made a deal with the local authorities of Leros. The grounds of the notorious former “hospital” were to house a detention facility for newly arrived refugees – a hotspot. On the field where the imprisoned ill had been made to walk aimlessly year after year with no recreation white boxes and barbed wire were set up to house and contain non-Europeans.
Your finger, please
The hotspots are Europe’s main tool to make migration regular. You put sans-papieres in on one end, and on the other you get a differentiated flow of the Vulnerable, the Vetted and the Vile. It’s an identification factory with outputs that bureaucracy recognizes: relocation, rescue or return. It’s an excel-form come to life, a registration flowchart carved in concrete and steel. The bodies of migrants are digitized – their fingers incorporated into the EU’s databases. To free themselves from the invisible borders of bureaucracy, refugees later tried to burn their fingerprints or pour solvent on them or cut them off. By forcing people to be not just verbally but physically registered, their own bodies are used against them.
The hotspot in Leros opened in late February. I arrived there a few days after it opened, and managed to sneak in past the uniformed guards. The place was stark and lifeless, with people walking about, waiting for their papers. The process took a few days, after which you could travel to Athens and, hopefully, out of Greece. The nationalities that were by now being contained in Greece – North Africans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi and so on – were, I think, not allowed out. What happened with them I don’t know. Possibly they were moved to prisons on the mainland. Maybe they were kept contained until they could be deported.
When the first refugees came there, they were kept outside for a day, sitting on concrete, while each and every one got registered. The army handed out a bit of water, but when some people threw their cups on the ground, instead of in the garbage can, the distribution was stopped. One volunteer told me later: “I was just talking with one of the refugees about where they came from, a two minute conversation, when a guard told me that if I was there to chat, I should leave. We were only supposed to find out what they needed and then go.” Several volunteers said they didn’t dare protest or criticize the hotspot publicly for fear of being banned from working there.
The deal with Turkey
As spring came, EU politicians grew desperate. No solution had been found that could close the borders. It was time for a bold move. On March 17, a deal was proposed by Germany. All refugees were to be detained on arrival, and no “leave-papers” would be handed out. The asylum claims would be processed fully in Greece – in the hotspots. Germany demanded that Greece would legally declare Turkey a “safe third country” (never mind the reality). This would make it legally possible to reject more or less all the asylum applications, and to subsequently deport more or less everyone from the hotspots. For every Syrian deported to Turkey, Europe would take one scanned, registered and vetted soul from a Turkish refugee camp and relocate them to Europe. Since this scheme was calculated to stop the refugee flow, that number would, in any case, be low.
This deal was signed the day after, Friday, March 18, and was to take effect on Sunday morning at midnight. That gave the Greek authorities Friday afternoon and Saturday to clear the islands of refugees, completely reorganize the hotspots and to revolutionize its asylum system and legislation.
It is hard to overstate just how ridiculously impossible this plan was. The EU has for years tried, and failed, to reform the Greek state. In desperation, it has partly taken over the Greek taxation system and its privatization program and it reserves a veto power over legislation there. Now, overnight, Europe expected to wake up to a new, super-efficient Greek bureaucracy.
If this sounds implausible to you, I don’t blame you. Presumably, this wasn’t quite the whole story. More likely is that the Northern European nations just didn’t care what happened in Greece after the borders closed. So long as the refugees stayed off the mainland, all was well. The obviously foreseeable catastrophes implicit in the agreement would be Greece’s to deal with and defend publicly.
As the deal went into effect, I was racing across Turkey on a rickety old borrowed car, drinking caffeinated sodas and eating salted nuts. A ferry would leave for Chios in the morning, and I intended to be on it. What would the deal look like in practice? There was only one way to find out.
As the ferry arrived in Chios, I saw refugees sitting in the port. They were put on a bus and driven to prison, about 7 kilometers from the island’s capital city. I found out in the following days that the refugees were being charged three euros for the ride.
The day after, I went with Soli Cafe to distribute biscuits, apples and sanitary products at the prison – Vial – in order to speak with the inmates. We didn’t ask for permission to go in (and wouldn’t have received it) but went straight to the fence instead.
We talked with people there as dusk set in, and explained to them the new agreement with Turkey. Most of them clearly hadn’t heard of it and were shocked and distraught.
The asylum process
The authorities in the camp had no idea what they were doing. A social worker from the First Reception Service even said so herself. When I talked to her, shortly after making the video above, her day had been a haze of stress and confusion. The army, who previously ran the camp, had left. Most NGOs had been thrown out. All procedures and even basic knowledge about where things like keys were kept disappeared with them.
When we went there, we always emphasized to the prisoners the necessity of applying for asylum. It’s difficult to do, when you have people that desperately want to go on, but if they didn’t apply, they could simply be deported. As it turned out, pretty much everyone wanted to apply for asylum, even in Greece, rather than go back.
But the police in the hotspots didn’t know what to do with the asylum requests. They put up a poster telling people the procedure wasn’t available, but even that took half a week.
During the next few days, people who came to Vial – the refugee prison – without going through the police first were sometimes shown away, sometimes detained, and sometimes they had all their documents registered. It was a difficult dilemma for most volunteers, whether to suffer this or, instead, cooperate with the imprisonment of refugees. MSF and NRC didn’t, and UNHCR only kept staff in the hotspots for oversight – not for camp work. On the other hand, keeping an eye on what went on inside day to day was important, and some volunteers who continued working in hotspots did so with that in mind.
The risk some of us had seen in Leros was that we’d become facilitators of cruel practices, which certainly did happen in various places and various ways this winter. And apart from that, the main issue for refugees wasn’t how they could stay in hotspots with more comfort. They wanted to move on. Volunteers who called themselves “non-political” would say that that wasn’t possible, but as a matter of fact it was. Refugees just had to break the law – as they had done when they came illegally to Greece.
It quickly became clear that “non-political” volunteering tended to mean volunteering without questioning authority, taking its orders and laws as a given. That obviously didn’t help refugees, except when their wishes aligned with the police’s – a police that was being employed to stop refugees getting to Europe.
A long chapter now started that at the time of writing, in early September 2016, still isn’t closed: The interminable, miserable waiting in the “temporary” camps, the regimentation and moving about of refugees against their wishes. By now you’d regularly hear them saying that they felt like beasts under the eyes of police, that instead of dying quickly in war, they were now dying slowly in camps. (This calls to mind the “veterinary approach” of unreformed psychiatry and the joyless waiting for death in the “hospital” in Leros.)
After the deal with Turkey, the borders out of Greece had been completely shut by the Northern European nations. (Macedonia, under pressure and with assistance from Austria and Hungary was the main agent.) Tens of thousands of refugees were now stuck on the mainland, and several thousand had arrived after the deal on the islands. They were now being held in the hotspots.
The most famous mainland camp was Idomeni, an unofficial and messy place literally on the Macedonian border, where refugees had good access to media and volunteers, and could stage frequent protests – which was a nuisance for the authorities. The humanitarian situation was not too good, but politically and psychologically it was better than the regimentation of the hotspots. Freedom matters, after all. The location, at the border post, was also significant. There was another camp just a few kilometers away, but nobody wanted to be there. You wanted to be at the border, a stone’s throw from your next destination.
Fights and a breakout
In Chios, the sudden removal of this freedom caused foreseeable frustrations and tensions. Refugees have been flowing through Chios for decades, feeling mostly okay about their journey. Even the short-term detention on arrival this spring didn’t cause much stress. People knew they’d go on soon enough, and all would be well. Now things were different. Their travels had been forcefully stopped, their dreams ground to dust. It seemed the only way out of prison was deportation. The relentless division among nationalities that had been intensifying all winter now bore fruit. Syrians started blaming Afghans for the border closures, saying that they were using the Syrians’ plight to free-ride into Europe. Afghans, on the other hand, said that Syrians had only suffered a little bit of bombing – Afghanistan had been at war for decades.
It didn’t help that the two nationalities have different languages, and that Afghans are generally much poorer than Syrians. Syrian condescension toward Afghans mounted. People took to drinking away their misery. Fights broke out repeatedly. You see, it’s not just the disabled whose spirit is broken when you rob them of their life and dreams. In the Leros institution, the so-called “hospital”, people would lose their capacity for speech, for eating, they’d get depressed and introverted. Now, the same methods were being applied, all over the Greek islands – all over Europe – to foreigners. And the effect was to degrade the prisoners.
Ten days after the mass-imprisonment started, people in Vial had had enough. About 800 inmates -mostly Syrian – broke out and walked to the city. They went straight to the port, occupied it, and declared that they wanted to leave.
The authorities immediately offered them an open camp to stay in. Though some accepted the offer, most wanted to remain in the port. The possibility of movement, however remote, was more important than comfort. And they didn’t feel like staying in any sort of camp, anyway.
The local mood turns sour
This action demonstrated the flaws in the advice that NGOs, UNHCR staff and detention center volunteers gave refugees: That they should stay calm. The simple truth is, you don’t beat injustice by accepting it. On the contrary, you gain concessions and protect your rights by defying it, by disobeying, by doing what is right even though you’re told you can’t.
Loud and regular protests, lots of media interviews and a great exuberance of communication now started with the people in the port. “The port is very important for Greeks, we know that,” a Syrian schoolteacher, Wassim Omar, told me. “But we chose it because, here, maybe our voice gets heard more clearly than in the camps.”
It certainly did. Refugees were now visible, but also in the way. The Athens ferry was redirected to the other side of the island for several days and food distributions by volunteers began at the port.
In the preceding weeks, people in the capital of Chios had heard stories from around Vial, from farmers near the prison. Refugees were sneaking out and eating their produce. “Yesterday I ate a potato from a farm near here. We made a fire and threw it in,” one refugee told me. “And I ate a tomato. It was tiny and green.”
“But a farmer told me he already lost 15,000€ because of us,” he added. While this is implausibly high, there’s no doubt that considerable losses were suffered by the farmers on Chios, on top of a very dry spring and a complete collapse in tourism. “From today, I won’t eat their vegetables anymore,” the refugee told me. “I was a farmer in Afghanistan, I understand.”
Suffering losses on farms was bad enough – but the port was supposed to be the lifeline of the island and an entry point for tourists. Instead, it was occupied by Muslims in tents. And that wasn’t even the worst part.
A few days after the port occupation started, the first deportations to Turkey were due. Several dozen refugees were moved from Vial to Tabakika, a warehouse close to the port. People who lived nearby did not want their neighborhood to become part of the migrant processing in Chios, and they tried to stop the transport. Riot police, which had just been brought in from Athens, arrived on the scene. And then his happened.
You can see the shock and dismay of the protesters. One of them (2’10”) shouts at the riot police: “You came here to beat them [the refugees], the criminals, and you beat us [instead]!” Also: “Are you Greeks?! Dogs! Get out of here!”
The morning after, the refugees were loaded onto a boat in the international port. On the occupied domestic port, refugees watched the scene with apprehension.
Those who got deported that sunny Monday morning were supposedly the very few souls who hadn’t applied for asylum. As a matter of fact the proceedings were “riddled with abuse.” Thirteen people were “accidentally” deported even though they had applied for asylum. The whole thing was “rushed, chaotic, and violated the rights of those deported,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Even though the asylum process had finally gotten to a rickety start, there seemed to be great pressure on Greece to make them a mere charade. At that time the Greek asylum boards, who decide on asylum applications, consisted of one judge, one human rights lawyer and a UNHCR representative. They later ruled, sensibly enough, that Turkey was not a “safe third country”, as the EU had hoped. In response, the Northern European states forced Greece to remove the human rights representative.
The EU has since tried to establish a harmonized asylum process over the whole of Europe with the aim of overruling such aberrations in the future.
And that wasn’t all. The head of the Greek Asylum Service stated, in an interview with IRIN, that “insufferable pressure is being put on us to reduce our standards and minimize the guarantees of the asylum process.” Greece was being asked “to change our laws, to change our standards to the lowest possible under the EU directive [on asylum procedures].” The pressure, she indicated, was coming from Germany.
A mob takes charge
After the riot police incident, fury in Chios over the island’s predicament boiled over. Athens was taking orders from Brussels, Chios was taking orders from Athens, and now uppity refugees had a stranglehold on the capital. Where was the democracy? Where was the pride? A protest was called for the next meeting of the municipal council, and the crowd disrupted the meeting several times. The next day a mob gathered at the port occupation and terrorized the refugees for hours.
The slim man in the suit, clapping and shouting at the refugees, is the mayor. At one point he called out: “You come with me or you go with them,” pointing his finger at the mob. Presumably he did it out of frenzied anxiety, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was tactical brilliance at work. He got rid of the port occupation, and didn’t need to request an ugly clearance by the riot police. A few hours after midnight, the occupation was gone. Five refugee leaders were taken to prison and beaten up, charged with trespassing and other crimes, and sentenced the day after without having a lawyer present.
The complicity of the police and Coast Guard in that evening’s events was more than passive. Policemen could be seen chummily chatting with the crowd, and the Union of Coast Guard officials discharged a hysterical press release defending the acts of the mob. Mob leaders beat their chests on Facebook the day after with exclamations such as “Good morning Chios! The port again belongs to the Chian people! Congratulations to Chian fighters and those who’ve helped!” Both they and the Coast Guard presented the mob’s actions as direct democracy – a long dialogue, ending with a peaceful resolution – where the views of local people prevailed.
The dreary protracted end
For Chios, this is where the current situation firmly set in. Refugees were bused to camps, where they’ve lived since in squalor and mud, waiting for their cases to be whitewashed by the reformed Asylum Board – waiting to be deported. One of them told me, shortly after the eviction: “Nobody talks with us now. The media? Gone.” Another added in a resigned tone; “Here we just eat and sleep, eat and sleep. And wait.”
There was one final event, which had long been looming, that underlined the absurdity of “non-political” volunteering. On May 24, the eviction of Idomeni started.
It didn’t happen because refugees wanted it. They weren’t asked, as their opinion was irrelevant. The state wanted this eyesore on civilization cleaned, the inhabitants boxed up somewhere out of sight. Military camps had been built, but for weeks, refugees had refused to go there voluntarily.
All journalists, activists and volunteers were to leave the area. Police picked them out and removed them. A friend of mine is Iranian-born and stayed inside the camp during the two-day eviction, witnessing how it happened. People were herded out like cattle, not told where their bus was going, their tents bulldozed as soon as they had left. The camps that they were brought to were military installations, very similar to the hotspots on the islands. In case people didn’t want to leave, food and water was cut off. And yet, volunteers were saying this was for the best.
It would seem that for some people, volunteering consists of finding a good way for a refugee to live and behave, and then make them. The fact that they were being moved violently wasn’t more than an inconvenience. Refugees are being treated like animals, and they know it. When they talk of freedom and political statements, non-political volunteers turn a deaf ear. They want to provide comfort, not challenge our society.
Refugees have to be crying, starving, shouting or drowning for there to be a story. As soon as “humanitarianism” has enveloped them in its suffocating embrace, they’re off the front page – and can wait silently for deportation. And thus, it ends up achieving its opposite. By removing refugees from the political and media scene at the Chios port, by evicting them from Idomeni, from the squares and from the parks, by giving them just enough food to stave off starvation, the authorities have managed to shut them up.
In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash, the Icelandic police started a surreal campaign. They had for months protected one of the least popular governments in history against protesters, calling it their democratic duty. Now they wanted to become the public’s friend again. People just had to understand that the police was only there to help. It was doing unpopular but necessary work. In order to establish this appearance, the head of the police instituted an unprecedented public relations campaign: instead of carrying guns, the police would carry iPads and take photos of themselves riding bikes, patting kittens, visiting kindergartens and eating candy-floss.
The idea was to craft a new image of the police, far removed from the grim realities of the post-crash confrontations. This new image was to conceal an altogether darker reality – one where the police is the most powerful opponent of democracy in Iceland.
To understand that reality, we have to look at its history – the tale of the birth and education of the Icelandic police, and the men who made it. All of them claimed to be protecting democracy and the public, but their actions dispel any such idea. This is a story that begins in the first Icelandic boom and bust, and one that ends with a humiliated nation that is expected to behave itself.
Megacorp in Reykjavík
Reykjavík is not a big city. It’s hardly a city at all – the current population is about a hundred thousand people (a large proportion of the entire nation). But in 1751, you’d be forgiven for missing Reykjavík altogether. It was merely a handful of farmhouses. That year, however, some enterprising Icelanders made a historic decision. They founded the Icelandic Stock Company, and decided to process wool there. Their ideas were megalomaniac lunacy, appropriate to a nation ten times larger, but they heralded the modern era in Iceland. Reykjavík became a small town with all the glories that modernity brings: syphilis, loose morals, criminality, poverty and homelessness.
Since Icelandic society was minuscule, and subjugated to Danish colonial control, criminals were sent to Denmark for slave work. Hapless parents who tried to steal bread to feed their families were thus stored, sometimes for months, in the home of the local magistrate – until the next ship left. To alleviate this burden on their household, the magistrates made the prisoners do menial work. They even requested permission from the king to kill these people, as it would allow for increased “savings and profitability”, but the king refused. (Some magistrates hanged their prisoners anyway.)
To improve upon this sorry state of affairs, the king ordered the building of the first stone house in Reykjavík – a prison – appropriately called The Masonry. To fund its construction, homeowners in the town were made to pay property tax. They were less than willing, but it didn’t matter. They weren’t in charge, and you had to keep the irresponsible poor somewhere, for everyone’s good.
As it turned out, the house was considered too fancy for imprisoning the lower orders, and in typical hubris, it had been made far too big for that anyway. Being the only water- and windproof house in the city, fancy guests from abroad were allowed to stay there instead. Today, it houses the offices of the Prime Minister.
From night-watchmen to professional drunkards Living in towns where you had to use candles to light your way, where everything was built of wood and where alcohol was freely available caused foreseeable problems. In response to fires and the thievery of the starving poor, the owners of the Icelandic Stock Company hired a couple of night-watchmen to roam the streets with clubs at night. These private security guards of the only Icelandic corporation interrogated and beat off the streets people who dared walk outside after nightfall. The Icelandic police was born.¹
For obvious reasons, everybody hated the night-watchmen except shopkeepers. After the Stock Company went bust, merchants financed these goons out of their own pocket. By relentless lobbying, they then managed to coerce the state, against strong public opposition, to pay for them instead. An unwilling public was again made to fund its own oppression. The lines of class-division were being drawn.
For the first decades of their existence, Icelandic policemen were notoriously drunk, incompetent and lazy. One of them lived in “a scandalous cohabitation” with a certain Madame Bagger, sold illegal liquor and held wild parties where he played the flute. He was eventually fired. Another one, who became somewhat notorious for beating up his prisoners, and who ended up beating one of them to death, was not.²
The police’s main job was to protect stores and the richer residences from thieves, and to take drunkards to jail in the “drunkards’ wheelbarrow”, which seems to have been the Icelandic police’s first vehicle. But the police’s tasks were transformed after 1900, as fishing established itself as an industry and, slowly but surely, a new industrial elite gained the power which it still holds. Class conflict sharply intensified between day labourers at the docks and the fishery owners who hired them. Strikes became a regular occurrence – except in the police, where strikes were forbidden and where policemen who made demands for higher pay got fired.
The police in Iceland was small. The population was measured in the tens of thousands, the police force in handfuls.
This made it difficult to manage (or more accurately, prevent) strikes. To supplement its forces, the police chief kept a list of willing assistants in town. These were people related to the newly established Independence Party, the party of the merchant and industrial classes. When a strike was called, the head of police made the rounds and distributed clubs and helmets to his preferred Rambos, who then proceeded to get business going again.
This happened with surprising regularity before and especially during the Depression years. Riots of the unemployed then got added to the mix, mostly directed at the Reykjavík municipal council meetings. A series of such riots in 1932 culminated in a severe brawl on November 9, where fat cats from the Independence Party announced to the unemployed that the jobs programme was going to be cut. The announcement didn’t go down too well, and in the ensuing fight, 19 out of the 21 Reykjavík police officers were left incapacitated.
The Icelandic government got the shivers. All weapons on sale in the city were confiscated. A large “supplementary” police force was assembled. Leaders of the fight were fined and imprisoned. Enormous additions were made to the Reykjavík police force’s funding. The municipal council meetings were moved to the top floor of the formidable Steamship Company headquarters – the new Icelandic Megacorp. Shortly after, a centralised State Police force was established. The Independence Party chief said people needed to understand that it was no use opposing the state.³ This view, publicly stated at many opportunities, has been dominant ever since.
While the state did step in and provide funding for the jobs programme, it was clear at the time (and has been amply confirmed by later scholarship) that this was done out of a very real fear of revolution. With the police out of the way, nothing stood between the lower classes and government anymore. The state’s reaction was a clear signal that revolution was not going to be be given a second chance.
After the reinforcements were in place, the mop-up operation was finished off by a programme of discipline for the still drunk and incompetent force. A young and determined man was hired to do it: Agnar Kofoed-Hansen. He studied the methods of foreign police departments, most especially those of National Socialist Germany. Then he came home and thoroughly reformed the police. A division was established to spy on the enemies of the state, and another one for “keeping track of” foreigners.⁴ No more frolicking flute-players or visiting your sister for tea while on duty. Things were serious now.
Legacy of the war
In 1949 came the first test of the new police’s determination. The government wanted to join NATO, and didn’t want the public involved. In reaction, the largest demonstration in Icelandic history was about to take place outside Parliament, requesting a referendum on the matter. To prepare, the head of the police in Reykjavík had the phones of leftists tapped. The man in question was Sigurjón Sigurðsson, a rehabilitated Nazi, shoved into office by the Independence Party two years earlier. This was his day.
As the demonstrators gathered on the Parliament square, he kept his men inside the Parliament building. As the request for a referendum was solidly refused, and the decision made to join NATO, people outside got angry – and the people inside wanted to go home. The square had to be cleared.
Sigurjón gave the order, and police streamed out of the front doors of Parliament, beating everyone in their path. A supplementary force of rabid, club-wielding Independence Party members ran out after them. A minor war broke out, only stopped when tear gas was shot over the field. Public participation in democracy had been averted. Iceland joined NATO five days later.
To fortify these operations in the future, the Prime Minister and the Nazi police chief fleshed out the proto-Secret Service, established under Agnar Kofoed-Hansen. Sigurjón proceeded to gather information on opposition candidates, unionists and other democratic activists. The documents were finally burned in an oil drum at a summerhouse outside Reyjavík in 1974, when Sigurjón thought he was going to be promoted.⁵
The rules of the game As we approach the present, we lose the clarity of hindsight, and the starkness of battle lines. Where previously there were bloody fights and furious strikes, there are now peaceful assemblies. This is considered a mark of Iceland’s ripe (not to say pickled) democratic tradition. Both protests and strikes are talked of as if their purpose was to get “your idea across”, not to get things done. The state reserves the right to unilaterally cancel and ban them.
When a strike is made illegal, “resistance” is taken to mean the occasional person calling in sick, rather than just continuing the strike regardless. Cowering obedience is justified with the cliché that “things are not so bad after all”. In this climate, the police isn’t your opponent. They’re just there to “make sure everyone plays by the rules”, as repeated ad nauseam by ex-chief constable Geir Jón Þórisson,⁶ who later reincarnated as a parliamentary candidate for the Independence Party.
These “rules of the game” can be as strict as the government pleases. In 2001 and 2002, it forbade protests altogether when two successive Chinese presidents came to Iceland. The Chinese government had by then waged a war of torture, rape and murder against the peaceful Falun Gong movement for years. To prevent inconvenience to these elevated gentlemen, the Icelandic government did them the pleasure of outlawing Falun Gong protests while they were in Iceland.
An illegal list of Falun Gong members was given to the Icelandic authorities by China and forwarded to the Icelandic airlines. They were told not to board anyone on that list. The man who oversaw that operation was an official in the Ministry of Justice, Stefán Eiríksson, whom we’ll meet again later. Those Chinese people that made it to Iceland anyway (whether they were Falun Gong or not) were sorted out at Keflavík airport by the police via ethnic profiling, and then locked inside a school gym until they signed away their rights to protest.⁷
In the 2001 visit, the police had shown its regard for freedom of expression when small groups protested in defiance of the government and its guest. Some demonstrators were harassed by policemen and Chinese officials, others arrested, most were photographed by Chinese men in suits, some of whom seemed to be giving orders to the Icelandic policemen. All protesters were then, as the President approached, hidden from view with buses, cars and, in one instance, by a human wall of policemen.
It would seem that we have all become children, under the patronising eyes of the police and the state. Our voice is expected to be the pleading whine of the kindergartener, directed at the better-knowing teacher who holds the cake – and the cane. This expectation became evident in the economic crisis in 2008, when a few of the kids in the kindergarten rebelled. Here’s the police clearing a roadblock which was set up to protest high gas prices that year. The policeman is screaming “GAS [pepperspray], GET OFF THE STREET!” (This was later to remixed as a popular ring tone.) People responded by throwing eggs at the police.
A policeman who was later interviewed about the incident said that the police had clearly just been attacked “for the sport of it”, and that people just “didn’t understand what was going on” when the road was to be cleared. After the more severe post-crash protests, another policeman described his attitudes to protesters, leaving no room for interpretation: “I saw this like the upbringing of a naughty child. He was always allowed one step further, like a little rascal.”⁸ This seems to have been a widespread feeling in the police force.
The main “rascals” were a small anarchist group, which pushed the protests in 2008-9 in a provocative and more confrontational direction. Chief constable Geir Jón and his underlings kept a thorough record of that group, of whom they talked to, of what they did, and of their political opinions. This bookkeeping broke privacy law, but was in accord with the political ideology and historical practice of the police, both in Iceland and abroad. (The only thing Geir Jón had to do was shut up, wait 20 years and then burn the documents in an oil barrel in his summerhouse. His mistake was talking about these documents publicly, and too soon.)
For the anarchists, though, bookkeeping was the least of it. They were harassed for months by police, chased by police vans and their windows peered into. They were also personally targeted for beatings or arrest by policemen at protests.
The most ominous result of the confrontation in 2008-9 were not these incidents, though, but the institutional response of the police. As we have seen, the state has a rule; when it is threatened, it responds with reinforcements. This crisis was no exception.
Behind the scenes
A few days before the Icelandic banks crashed in the autumn of 2008, the head of the Reykjavík police got a call from the Prime Minister’s office. The police chief’s name was Stefán Eiríksson – the brain behind the Ministry of Justice actions against Falun Gong in 2002. Now he was being told to prepare for a crisis. Something very bad was about to happen, the PM’s office told him, and society might boil over. So Stefán pushed all other tasks aside and began preparations.⁹
A decision was immediately taken to meet any protests with a “soft approach”, since the police was under-equipped for a hard confrontation. While this was the only realistic option, the decision was not unanimous. The leader of the police’s SWAT-team wanted a hard-line response. The naughty child should be disciplined, not given leeway. While that view, as we’ve seen, was to be found among the rank-and-file, it did not become policy. The only time when the police actually broke out the tear gas was in the protests of January 20, 2009 – the most severe of that winter – where they’d pretty near run out of manpower and pepper spray. It was a rough day that ended in an utter mess, but nowhere near the ruin of November 9, 1932.
The debate between hardliners and softliners might have died there, buried in an academic review of the police’s response to the crisis, if it were not for a few other inconvenient stories. In 2012, that same SWAT-chief – Jón F. Bjartmarz – advocated the distribution of firearms to all police vans. In 2013, he oversaw the first police operation where the Icelandic police killed a civilian. In 2014, it turned out the police had ordered, and received, a container full of submachine guns from Norway, for use on the streets. The chief proponent of the purchase? Jón F. Bjartmarz.
In the media storm that ensued, the actual location and use of the weapons was somewhat obscured. It seemed for a while that they would be returned, but Jón F. Bjartmarz is still adamant that the need for them is there. The Icelandic Coast Guard, responsible for returning them, has publicly stated that it might happen – and I’m not making this up – the next time they’re going to Norway. No dates, no guarantees.
The police’s force
While platitudes abound about the public service of policemen, it is clear what their political function is: To be the domestic enforcer and protector of the government. Insofar as the government is democratic, much of the public may tolerate and understand their position. It is, however, fundamentally undemocratic. It sets apart a class of people with an exclusive right to violence, which furthermore protects the power of another group – the government. This setup guarantees that the government can get away with unpopular and antidemocratic action. If the police can’t protect the government sufficiently, it is reinforced.
Throughout history, the police has been the tool of the urban business class. It was established by the first Big Business in Iceland out of sheer necessity – to protect its privilege and property. It has developed and expanded that function in the service of their evolving but ever-present successors. The police’s role in society is clear, and our society wouldn’t be possible without it. To get rid of it, society has to be differently arranged – with less inequality of wealth and power.
The police is an antidemocratic force. It guarantees the separation of the rulers from those they rule, the separation of the mass of people from the wealth of this earth. These are the rules of the game. The police makes sure you play by them.
For an outline of the origins of the Icelandic police, I’ve consulted the police’s very own celebratory leaflet on its 200-year history.
For a fuller story of the first decades of professional policing in Reykjavík, see the excellent eulogy Lögreglan í Reykjavík.
The quote can be found, along with a detailed discussion of the relations of state and police at the time, in the Master’s thesis Tengsl lögreglu og ríkisvalds á Íslandi 1921-1935 og stofnun íslenskrar ríkislögreglu. Some additional sources for the Depression-era riots can be found in Kommúnistar á Íslandi by Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson. The police chief, Hermann Jónasson, wrote a small booklet about the incidents in 1932 with proposals for strengthening the police, available at the Icelandic National Library, where the subsequent debates in Parliament about the matter can also be read.
The announcement of Agnar’s programme of discipline can be found here, later writings on spying are here and in the same author’s books.
Reported here. As it turned out, he had misread his superiors’ promises, and stayed in office for several years. His whole term lasted four decades. As Agnar, with a term of 10 years, had been inspired by Nazis, and since Sigurjón was a Nazi himself, that gives us 50 Nazi-inspired years at the outset of modern Icelandic policing. The results of this on the police’s attitudes and function have not been studied, but given that one of the police’s tasks from 1937 until 2002 was “keeping track of foreigners”, it seems an important subject.
See a discussion of views towards protest in conservative daily Morgunblaðið, titled “Useful, fun or useless protests?”, including Geir’s remarks, here.
The story of this incredible spring is best told in the scholarly review of Herman Salton in his Arctic host, icy visit. A summary of his research, published in the Nordic Journal for Human Rights, is available here. The Icelandic Parliament reviewed these incidents a decade later, see here.
The quotes are from an excessively sympathetic, but informative, BA-thesis. It’s written by a policeman’s relative and is available here. My comments on the treatment of anarchists are partly based on an unpublished investigation into the anarchist movement in Iceland. See also Saving Iceland‘s documentation.
This account of the crisis-preparations is from a 2010 MPA-thesis, evaluating the police’s response. The thesis is available here.