Can Europe Make It?

Europe's refugee-love

Fear pushes us to know the social and political determinations of refugees from a right-wing perspective ('are they potential ISIS militants?'). But compassion works by blinding us to it.

Saroj Giri
14 September 2015
More than 1000 refugees welcomed in Dortmund,

More than 1000 refugees welcomed in Dortmund,Septemebr 6. Demotix/Felix Huesmann. All rights reserved.Perhaps it is only the most racist, right-wing groups who would refuse to share the pictures of Aylan Kurdi or not get moved by it to support the refugees' bid to enter Europe.

However, here is one immediate contrast. Radical Kurdish sites declare that they will not be sharing the pictures of Aylan Kurdi. One story is titled, 'Why I refuse to share Aylan Kurdi's picture'. Another says: "If wars continue in the ‘Middle East,’ if exploitation, repression, torture, coercion continue - what will a few European countries accepting refugees’ change? Something maybe, but not much."

And then it goes on to describe the dead child not as a victim, whom Europe should have allowed free entry, but as "a boy who might have grown up to be a hero" in the Kurdish struggle.

In this narrative, Aylan Kurdi is not an example of a refugee who lost his life because of Europe's inhumanity. No. Instead he is someone who could have been a hero in the struggle, and we must ask: what prompted Aylan Kurdi's family to leave the struggle and march towards Europe?

What is being challenged is the pro-immigration stance which works with the figure of the refugee fleeing into the laps of western powers, rather than digging in and putting up resistance to imperialist powers in countries like Syria or in Kobane.

The refugee is reduced to a recipient of 'human rights' or rather humanitarian relief - these human rights are basically what Alain Badiou would call 'animal rights', of food, shelter and rest. That the refugees in their present dire conditions need precisely these rights is true - and that must be ensured.

But these rights whenever they are fulfilled, as with Germany willing to accept a good number of refugees, work by bracketing out the social and political determinations of the refugees. Even Aylan Kurdi's picture works to freeze the frame, the discourse to one of pure deprivation and suffering in a way which invisibilises the refugees as political actors. But we must differentiate between the actions of the refugees - which by putting pressure on Europe can amount to a political action - and the pro-immigrant discourse which is trying to put them in their place.

Compassion for refugees has won over fear in Europe today, pro-refugee activists tell us. Fear pushes us to know the social and political determinations of refugees from a right-wing perspective ('are they potential ISIS militants?'). But compassion works by blinding us to it. The point is to ask for these determinations from a left-wing progressive perspective.

The pro-immigrant left in Europe refuses to do this. They think that doing this would be to indulge in Islamophobia - hence let us always look at the refugees as pure victims of colonialism, rather than have a political understanding of their agency! This infantilises the refugees. This is what the picture of Aylan Kurdi has come to signify for Kurdish groups – this European tolerance of refugees is so dependent on desocialising and depoliticising them.

In not seeing a political struggle, Europe's compassionate souls see only a badland of warring factions in the refugees' country of origin. Their narrative works with a clear binary: the safe and civilised west versus the badlands of non-european countries. These badlands are just an undifferentiated mass, with 'ordinary people' living there with oil underneath the soil, often getting bombed by European powers. Such is the way the refugee-love infantilises many non-european countries. Refugee-love has created its own object of love, the pure humanitarian victim. The European fights the battle against his/her government's anti-immigration stance; the refugee is just a recipient or beneficiary of this struggle. That the refugee is coming from the midst of a political struggle is rendered invisible.

Compassion is a self-referential loop here and the satisfaction of providing relief to the hungry and the homeless refugees closes in on itself. The compassion of the more left-leaning might be laced with a broad notion that the intervention of European powers is responsible for this plight. But beyond this, the existence of a resistance as in Kobane or of strengthening the resistance is too distant to what Slavoj Zizek has called the pro-immigrant beautiful souls of Europe.

And yet the pressure on Europe to deliver even just humanitarian relief, provide for the refugees must be welcomed.

Social desertification of the third world

This discourse shares strong affinities with structural processes of what I call the social desertification of third world - a process which is not visible to the 'philanthropic landlords' of Europe hosting refugees. Small towns in India with major migration abroad, are full of macho local elites driving their SUVs as though they are flexing their bicep muscles. These are areas of the fast moving consumer goods marked by crass commercialisation. A social and cultural barrenness, degeneration and lumpenisation of these societies is part of the process which produces and gifts the west its 'refugee'.

Indeed, apart from a country like India which is an ally of the US in Afghanistan, the ultimate lumpen here is Saudi Arabia. Reports say that Saudi Arabia has 100,000 air conditioned tents that can house over 3 million people sitting empty, but has taken in precisely zero migrants. It does take in migrants, but not as refugees with legal status but as workers, so 'modern slaves'. But you cannot oppose what it actually does for refugees in Europe, which is building 'one mosque for every 100 refugees who arrived last weekend', since that again will be Islamophobic!

In the larger logic of global capitalism, could we say that 'refugee flow' towards Europe is good for imperialism and not so good for anti-imperialist struggle? In particular, the old and the new landlords define power relations in the context of a decreasingly able male population and a general degeneration/commercialisation/lumpenisation of social relations. The dead refugee at the gates of fortress Europe is also a symbol of this.

Gaining them entry into Europe might only reinforce Europe's moral hegemony over the rest of the world and allow it to deploy its pro-refugee good will and social capital to create the basis for the next armed intervention in, say. Syria. Already the Guardian has declared as much: ‘The EU has to get behind the US agenda, support and even assist with an invasion of Syria, maybe also implement other as yet unspecified legislation to bring us in line with the US – or be swamped by the ‘fearful dispossessed’.

The desocialised refugee might integrate into society and become normal, middle class citizens. They might contribute to 'multicultural diversity' in places like East London or Kreuzberg in Berlin. But multicultural diversity is also a trope for certain kinds of gentrification. Diversity and postcolonial hybridity is now pretty much an amenity which the upper middle class wants almost as 'a right' and which real estate conglomerates can use as a selling point.

Let Europe be racist, imperialist or what have you. Let Europe not admit a single refugee and build the tallest fence around itself. I consider that Europe has no obligation towards me, as this obligation puts me in a position of dependence on Europe. But this only means that I will give Europe no chance to prove its moral character and this is what allows me to prepare for a real struggle against it. That is why the word from Kobane is to recognise the struggle unfolding against imperialism in Syria and elsewhere.

A long time ago, Marx anticipated that the struggle of the European proletariat could develop a linkage with the struggle in the colonies, that they should reinforce each other. But Europe's refugee-love today is used precisely to invisibilise this linkage, as though the refugee scrounging at Europe's borders for 'animal rights' is the only reality, as though compassion and not a political engagement is the only active attitude possible towards the struggle in non-european societies.

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData