Neoliberal realpolitik: choking others in our name

This lack of lived experience with the violence of our state entails an almost inevitable blindness to the deepening divide between those our states protect and those whose life it represses, expels, and humiliates.

Markha Valenta
28 July 2015

 ATM queue near pro-EU rally with homeless man.

July 9: ATM queue near Greek pro-EU rally with homeless man. Demotix/Chrissa Giannakoudi. All rights reserved.

The project of Europe has transformed from one of collective liberation from war, poverty and brutality to one of nauseating inhumanity for the sake of maintaining our comfort and welfare. This is presented to us as an a-political matter: not an ideological choice made by politicians, but an economic necessity carried out pragmatically. In the process, there is an Orwellian inversion of terms, such that the failure of the euro is presented as success, oligarchy is presented as politically representative, democratic protest as disruptive and irrelevant, human suffering as a side-issue, sovereignty as the freedom to agree and submit, austerity as realistic, our self-interest as the same as that of banks and the corporate-political elite, and alternatives as non-existent.

In other words, the neoliberalization of Europe is being presented to us as the solution to the very disorder and violence it itself produces. The policies, relations, privileges and humiliations this entails are driven by an alliance of north European politicians, global financial institutions and transnational corporations. These present the profit they derive from this arrangement as a form of disinterested ‘good management’ practice. The only future they can imagine is that of their own hegemony, a hegemony they imagine as gentle and noble. The fact that, like any hegemony, it can only be held in place by dint of force and destruction – descending at moments to ferocious barbarity – is literally unimagineable and unspeakable.

Deadly fractures

So, one of the most striking features of Europe’s Greek crisis has been the sludge of self-deceptive thinking sustaining Europe’s top negotiators with Greece. In a recent interview, Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and head of the European Council, countered the widespread criticism that he has heard:

“I can’t accept this argument, that someone was punished, especially Tsipras or Greece. The whole process was about assistance to Greece … When we discuss facts, deeds and numbers, this is the only number on the table: €80bn for Greek assistance, and quite soft conditions. Not only [soft] financial conditions, but political conditions — in fact, without collateral. Come on: what is the reason to claim it’s something humiliating for Greece, or this is punishment for Tsipras?”

With friends like these, who needs enemies? The comment is striking not only for what it tells of Tusk’s position, but for getting to the heart of the fundamental questions about Europe that have been laid bare by the Greek crisis.

Like so many crises, the conflict over how best to address the economic conditions of Greece did not so much come into existence ex nihilo as rudely tear away the veil of politeness masking evolved fractures, tensions and corruptions at work for many years.

Fractures: over the question of how to relate the incommensurable social, political, economic and idealist yearnings of the European project; questions over how to distribute and direct the mass of power at Europe’s center; over the place of democratic principles and the agonistic politics they produce; over how to engage the national and cultural differences within Europe’s bounds and, ultimately, over the value of human life to Europe.

After all, Tusk’s distance – and that of the entire Troika and Eurogroup - from the Greek people is literally deadly.

Just to recap some numbers that have been common knowledge but which Tusk brackets - austerity measures imposed since 2010 have meant Greek minimum wages slashed by 20%, pensions and wages by up to 50%, while increasing unemployment to 25%; cutbacks in the health sector so deep they have led to exponential rises in infant deaths, HIV, and malaria; a near-doubling of suicides and a 250% increase in depression; and a host of obstacles for Greeks requiring medicine and medical care, from closing hospitals and shortages of medication to insufficient wages to pay for the medicines and care that are available. The more than 40 free community health clinics run and staffed by volunteers that have sprung up across country are both admirable and completely inadequate to the crisis. 100,000 businesses have gone bankrupt, 200,000 Greeks have emigrated, 50% of youth are unemployed. The lower middle class is being wiped out. Homelessness, previously negligible, has surged to more than 20,000 former homeowners without jobs or permanent shelter, while 30% of all Greeks are now living below poverty levels.

The new measures demanded by the Troika, measures Tusk played an important role in pushing on Greece, will make this worse still. Knowing all this and calling it “soft” while forcing the new measures on the Greeks against their express, democratic will is gratuitous, vicious inhumanity.

Indeed, in another Europe, a Europe we have yet to make, this would be criminal.

It would be criminal precisely for the reason that bad policies by politicians are not: the policies of the Troika and the Eurogroup have no political or democratic legitimacy but were born of informal alliances and backroom agreements by a small oligarchic clique, a center of power answerable to no one. Under such conditions – of governance without normative or democratic grounding – legal culpability is essential if we in any fashion take the notion of a humane, rather than vicious, Europe seriously.

It is as if there is a vast, insurmountable wall: on one side stands Tusk with his single essential number - €80 billion in aid – which he would like to have make any and all other numbers irrelevant. This side corresponds to the future Europe Schäuble has proposed, along the lines of an intensified political and economic union of the “powerful and disciplined” under German leadership and shorn of the euro’s southern appendages. On the other side stand the living, breathing human beings who will be made to pay for all this with their health, homes, labor, minds, bodies, social and political lives.

Beyond left and right?

Crucially, the European political parties that once would have resisted this – Labour and Christian Democrats – now have either joined in or simply stand aside. So, the head of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, is a member of the once-powerful Dutch Labour Party that has shrunk precipitously since it has joined the Liberals in a coalition. A loyal ally of Merkel and Schäuble – known to some as their “water carrier” – and a firm believer in the neutrality of neoliberal policies “beyond Left and Right”, Dijsselbloem’s clashes with Varoufakis during negotiations were notorious. Praised by Dutch media for being “stubborn as an ox” and cheered for standing with the greats of Europe, Dijsselbloem has been one of the fiercest implementers of the demands on Greece, deeply convinced of the irrelevance of all for which Labour once stood.

This has cleared the way for a radical politics of dehumanization. A Neoliberal realpolitik. A realpolitik that in the name of Europe negates the Europe that gave birth to it: the Europe of democracy, solidarity and equality.

One of the most striking statements Tusk makes in his interview is to warn us of the dangers of radicalizing anti-European ideologies that he perceives on the Left as well as Right. It reminds him, he says, of the darkest moments in European history when radicals of all stripes made common cause.

What Tusk misses is that this radicalization – most especially the growing aversion of the Left and progressives more generally to Europe – is a reactive radicalization, a response to a radical Neoliberalism which he himself represents and enforces.

In contrast to neoliberalization at the national level in democratic countries, the conditions imposed by the Troika and Eurogroup on Greece go much farther, much more quickly. They are both radical and revolutionary in forcing policies on Greece explicitly against the democratic wishes of the Greeks through the use of raw and unselfconscious threat (if the Greeks do not do what is demanded of them Europe will blow up their banking system).

Sustaining this endeavor is the fantasy that the economic policies of the Troika supersede politics itself. Tusk himself asserts that there are no alternatives. The neoliberal conceit is precisely this: that its policies are not politics but the neutral application of invariant, impersonal and transcendent economic mechanisms. (A standpoint that suggests a striking relation of filiation between Neoliberalism and Marxism in this regard.) Tusk and his ilk fail to perceive how destructive of the social, civic, and ethical fabric of our societies these policies are because they are not destructive to their own social, civic and political rights, their own access to justice. Indeed, if anything, they expand them.

A Faustian bargain

In other words, Greece has exposed the raw split between Europe’s ethical and political core. While Europe’s formal ethics are those of inclusive human equality in diversity, dignity and security, the political ideology is one of socio-economic precarity and inequality, harsh realist politics, nationalist chauvinism, Calvinist discipline and punishment. Two visions for the future of Europe are increasingly clearly delineated: one which follows Schäuble’s fantasies for an intensified political and economic union of Europe’s rich few and another that reconfigures a future Europe along the lines of its original values, willing to pay the price, quite literally, that it will take to make Europe more egalitarian, inclusive, diverse and humane.

At its most reductive, this is an economic calculation that conceives of wealth and value according to a highly limited set of monetary and financial terms, a calculation that, as it were, reduces the value of human life and a nation’s capital to the strength of the euro. The alternative is a calculus that understands wealth to entail not money and finance as such, so much as cultural, social, political, and environmental welfare. It is the question of whether Europe’s economic riches are to be at the service of its welfare, broadly and humanely conceived, or whether such dynamic welfare is to be sacrificed for a punishing, raw economy that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

This condition in which we find ourselves marks the coming to fruition of arguments and policies tried out elsewhere for the last three decades and now making their way into Europe’s heartland. Until now, their objects have been those most distant from us: far away, in Third World countries subjected to the rapacious incisions of the IMF and World Bank; closer by in the East Bloc countries subjected to a ferocious liberalization after the Cold War; and closer yet, along our borders, extending into the inner reaches of our cities, in the regimes that have sprung up to control, exploit and expel poor people from beyond Europe when and where they seek entry into what is considered to be “ours”.

Until now, the preeminent guinea pigs of neoliberal realpolitik in Europe have been those who are not yet, are not completely or will never be the citizens of Europe.

The Faustian bargain offered by Neoliberalism has been that of increasing Europeans’ socio-economic precarity – displacing national states’ commitment to the welfare of the people by a concern for the welfare of corporations, banks, trade and financial flows – in exchange for maintaining a chauvinist commitment to national identity and cultural superiority.

This comes at a time when national cultural and racial identities have been under pressure from two fronts: the global market and global migration. The market, to the extent that it is translated by national elites into projects of self-enrichment, is largely experienced as a domestic phenomenon connected to international flows. Migration, to the extent that it is translated by national elites into existential threats to the future of the nation, is largely experienced as an external invasion of alien bodies, races, ideas and lifeworlds.

Another way of putting this is this: given the choice between multiculturalism and marketization, our societies have overwhelmingly and rather consistently preferred the insecurities of the neoliberal market to the precarities of diversity.

The fact that this is the deal being made has largely been hidden from our societies by the fact that it is bodies conceived as brown, alien, poor and Muslim – and correspondingly dangerous – that have been made to feel the most intense impact of Neoliberal policies. Precisely for this reason, those who are white and (still) middle class can imagine that neoliberalism entails the disciplining of the other to the benefit of its own welfare, even at the moment that its own welfare is shrinking.

Just numbers

Demonstration in Rome against migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean.

Demonstration in Rome against migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean. Demotix/ Giuseppe Ciccia. All rights reserved.

We see this in its most extreme form at Europe’s external borders, where the poverty of those who attempt to enter is sufficient, in and of itself, to justify their increasingly brutal and deadly exclusion. No other argument is needed today, other than simply their economic inferiority as this is linked, according to our society’s common sense, to the inferiority of their race, culture and religion. If only they would make their culture more like our own, they would not be poor, not need to migrate, not bother and threaten us.

In this way, the deaths of the 20,000 migrants who have perished on Europe’s iron doorstep in the face of ever more stringent surveillance, policing, and legislation – barbed wire fences slicing feet, hands, grazing any bit of brown skin, border guards beating those they catch; whole seas and generations of fish fed on their drowned bodies; roads stained by their truck-crushed carcasses – all these dead are said to have only themselves to blame.

As do, it is said, the countless others transported across the continent, to be fed into our sexual, agricultural, construction, and service machines, while they are milked for the profit to be squeezed from their bodies’ needs for sleep, food and shelter; if, at least, they do not want to become one of the thousands informally hunted down, harassed, beaten, raped and killed across our continent’s cities and countryside. Or simply forgotten, for years on end, in isolated asylum centers, to the point that they go mad, become ill, kill themselves or threaten others.

There is no way to tell this story without it sounding overdramatized and emotional. Precisely because we already know all this. By now, this is just background noise to the public lives of our societies, a newsflash here and there, more faceless bodies and little more than bodies pressing in at our borders. Our politicians, our news, our legislation has been drained of affect towards undocumented migrants. They have no names, no faces and do not speak a tongue we know. As far as our politics are concerned, they are just numbers.

Much like Greece today.

That is to say: part of the shock of the moment is to see a European country and people treated as if they are a dark Third World (Muslim) one. To see the Greeks treated as a people that do not deserve to be European and must prove their intent to reform, to be disciplined, to earn our good graces. As a people that does not deserve the full palette of recognition, dignity, democratic self-assertion, and protection from exploitation that are the birthright of (white, middle-class, elite) Europeans. The invisible boundary that divided the world between the West and the poor, brown, Muslim Rest has been breached.

Which is not to say Europe has not been practicing. On those who live in between. The poor, brown and Muslim semi-citizens of our inner cities.


A few days before the Greek crisis broke, another crisis erupted in the Netherlands. The police in The Hague killed a brown man, a visitor from Aruba, one of the Dutch kingdom’s four countries. Mitch Henriquez was just leaving a summer music festival, being rowdy with his friends. The police told him to tone it down and move on. A minute later five policemen were sitting on him, then put him in the car in handcuffs to take him to the station. The next day he was dead.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office sent out a press release. It said that Mitch Henriquez had become unwell in the car, the officers had tried to reanimate him, but that this had ultimately failed. None of this was of interest to any news media – as Holland’s one Black TV show host tweeted.

Until a video appeared.

On the video, one of the officers is choking Henriquez. By the time, the officers massed on his body step away, he is unconscious, head lolling, handcuffed body limp. The police do not do anything to care for him and keep at bay anyone else wanting to go to his aid. The video suddenly exposes for all to see that the police killed him and then blatantly lied to cover their tracks.

100 protesters at death of Mitch Henriquez in police custody arrested.

July 4:100 protesters at death of Mitch Henriquez in police custody arrested. Demotix/ Geronimo Matulessy. All rights reserved.

Protests are organized by anti-fascists, anti-racists and others, concerned citizens. They gather not in the neighborhood where the killing happened, but slightly to the west, in front of the police station of the “Painter’s Neighborhood.” Its streets named for the famous artists in Dutch history, the recent history of the neighborhood itself is rather infamous. One of the most thoroughly poor in all the Netherlands, struggling with unemployment, physical degradation, social isolation, and criminality, it has regularly been in the news. Its sizable pre-war Jewish population decimated, it has since the 1980s become home to 110 nationalities, many of them Muslim, many others Hindustani (the descendants of labourers brought from India to Suriname in the late nineteenth century).

A reporter last year secured the neighbourhood’s infamy by revealing that one area was dominated by orthodox Muslims who harassed anyone not abiding by their strict rules of dress, behaviour and consumption. Even people walking their dogs were scared. And the police did not dare to interfere. The area was dubbed a “Little Caliphate” and the “Sharia Triangle.” Days after the article appeared, Dutch ministers and politicians appeared as well to inspect this travesty. It became international news, there were debates in Parliament: it was a national scandal. Some ISIS supporters from outside the neighbourhood thought this was a good moment and place to demonstrate their affiliation. A nationalist Dutch far-right group immediately countered with its own plans. For publicists, politicians, media and people across the land, the Sharia Triangle became Holland’s name for all it feared: Islamic orthodoxy and Islamic radicalism; recruitment of youth for Jihad in the Middle East; women’s religious and cultural oppression; the erasure of Dutch culture, norms and neighborhoods by immigrant ones; the creation of parallel societies and legal systems; and migrant criminality.

And then it was discovered the entire article was made up.

Completely made up. By a Hindustani-Dutch journalist who in recent years had become expert at delivering the quotes and stories his editors wanted, especially ones relating to minorities to which white journalists lacked access, by inventing sources no one could trace. No such thing as a Sharia Triangle existed anywhere in the Painters’ Neighborhood or in The Hague or in the Netherlands. Nowhere.

Crucially, what was not news during all this time, was the repressive profiling, surveillance and violence applied by the police to discipline and punish residents in the Painters’ Neighborhood. In an interview the city’s Chief of Police implied that Moroccans were barbarians, genetically predisposed to be more violent. A local grassroots organization in the Painters’ Neighborhood, the “Action Committee to Restore Trust” had begun collecting accounts of police violence and harassment in an attempt to get authorities at the national level to address the problem. Stories of spontaneous police violence – broken bones, hernias, bruised ribs, torn ligaments, wounded men repeatedly untreated for hours, then dumped barefoot on the street; stories of denigrating insults and populist racism; and stories of active collusion, obstruction and harassment of residents by police when residents lodged complaints. Local journalists, taking an interest in these stories, investigated too: their documentaries, news reports and articles supported the stories.

But these were not a scandal. They were not even national news. Any more than the killing of a young Hindustani man running from police in The Hague some years ago was national news. So most Dutch do not know about those stories or those documentaries, much less about the former police officers who have publicly confirmed the violence, harassment and racism they saw within the police force when they worked in this neighbourhood.

The first reaction of the mayor, Jozias van Aartsen and the Chief of Police to the killing of Mitch Henriquez, then, was to deny fervently that this had anything to do with structural police racism or violence or that any such problem even existed. When pushed to explain the riots, the mayor blamed the heat wave. And Ramadan. And, as an afterthought, unemployment. He added, rather nonsensically, that actually Muslims were not allowed to riot during Ramadan. In any and all cases, racism had nothing to do with what happened, he declared. The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte called the rioters “stupid morons,” declared their behaviour unacceptable and squarely supported – he said looking directly into the camera at one point – authority, the police and the mayor.

The denials infuriated those concerned with what happened even more. Night by night, the protests grew, turned into riots, people pouring into the Painters’ Neighborhood from Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht and farther afield. Plate glass windows were smashed, a theatre trashed, lighter fluid poured on policemen, stones and bottles thrown, bus stops and refuse burned on the streets. For the first time, the Netherlands had its own riots against police brutality and racism, joining Ferguson, Baltimore, Tel Aviv, Paris, London, Stockholm, Ürümqi, Singapore. The city was forced to bring in police from other cities, a general curfew was announced for the neighbourhood and mass arrests were carried out: all men, women, and children found outside locked up. Since then the police have been tracking down all the rioters and protesters they can find, going to cities across the land: in some cases in groups of 6 and 8, in plainclothes and their faces covered, to grab those they have identified; in other cases breaking roughly into homes late at night and early in the morning to nab others.

A few days later the Greek protests against Europe’s austerity regime erupted.

* * *

One of the distinctive aspects of a hegemonic, repressive system is that it presents itself as the solution to the chaos it itself creates. It is no different with Neoliberalism.

There is a deep fundamental blindness in our society to the violence that is being committed in its name, whether that name is “Europe” or “The Netherlands” or “The Hague.” Blindness by those living in white, middle-class European society, to the increasingly segregated, discriminated, hyper-surveilled, harassed and policed lives of those living in poor “black” neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods we need to understand both in the urban and in the continental sense.

Within the context of a neoliberal Europe, “Greece” is a backward neighborhood. Think of the culturalist clichés of Greece: lazy, corrupt, recalcitrant, disruptive, irrational and dangerous to the future of Europe. Think of the treatment of the Greeks: the legislature bereft of its national sovereignty, forced to agree with any and all policing policies handed to it by the Troika, the people’s democratic right to representation, legitimation and protest pushed aside. Increasingly, full civil and social rights at both the local and the (inter)national levels are imagined to be the rights only of those conceived as economically “productive.” Rights are treated as something earned, like and alongside income, rather than inherent. Correspondingly, those dependent on the state, a drain on “our welfare”, see a cut-back in their rights, along with a cut-back in state support and welfare.

Austerity entails not just economic belt-tightening, but also a constriction in the civil rights a state extends to its economically “backward” citizens and in the social life that it allows them. (We might recall here not only the structural disruption and harassment of youth hanging out on the streets or the police’s forced entries into homes that offer no resistance, but also a number of court cases now making the rounds in the Netherlands on whether those receiving benefits from the Dutch state – grandparents caring for their grandchildren and parents visiting their children while at work – are criminally negligeant in not reporting such family life as “work” to the Dutch state for which they are expected to demand payment, pay taxes and reduce their state benefits.)

This structural blindness of our media, politicians, pundits and scholars – ensconced in a lack of contact and context – will make the stories that occasionally spurt out of these neighborhoods intuitively feel like an exception rather than like everyday life. Certainly not like our everyday life and relation to our state, our politicians and our police. This lack of lived experience with the violence of our state entails an almost inevitable blindness to the deepening divide between those our states protect and those whose life it represses, expels, and humiliates. A blindness even to the fact that our state and our society expels, represses and humiliates those who are economically vulnerable, who are brown, who are Muslim in the name of safeguarding us and our interests, whether or not we agree to that.

Much like Tusk was blind to the violence austerity has brought to Greece, in our name.

* * *

Malta. Coast guards unload body of migrant drowned in Mediterranean.

Malta. Coast guards unload body of migrant drowned in Mediterranean. Demotix/ Christian Mangion. All rights reserved.

Each of these crises have very particular histories, different actors and institutions, all played out at different scales. None will be entirely or even easily comparable to any other. Yet still, the basic mechanism is one that we must see, namely this: our welfare is being traded for their equality.

We have no way to speak of this in a serious and engaged public fashion. And that silence is deadly. Time and again, this is the basic failure of our politicians, media and pundits: they do not see what is happening, they cannot name it. They think the choice is between order and disorder; between respect for the law and its violation.

What they do not see is that this disorder and lawlessness they perceive mimics the disorder of the power they represent. In The Hague: a local police force that for years has been making its own laws, violating the law and has put itself above the law. In Europe: an informal group, elected by none, making its own laws, violating international sovereignty, and putting itself above the law. In all cases, that is to say, at all the levels at which today we experience the reorganization of our lives – in our neighbourhoods, our work, our social life, our national systems and the European project itself – the effect is to discipline and suppress those formally enfranchised but informally disenfranchised by a neoliberal realpolitik that couples power, force and rights to economic success.

For a long time, we have not wanted to choose. We have wanted to maintain both our welfare and their equality and thought this was possible. The riots in our cities and Europe’s crisis with Greece make clear, however, that we do have to choose if we do not want things to get worse before they get better. Which will come first: our welfare or their democratic equality? For how long will we let our states choke others in our name?

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