A young Syrian boy cries as his father carries him past Hungarian police after being caught in a surge of migrants attempting to board a train bound for Munich, Germany at the Keleti railway station on September 9 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Slavoj Zizek: We Can’t Address the EU Refugee Crisis Without Confronting Global Capitalism

The refugees won’t all make it to Norway. Nor does the Norway they seek exist.

BY Slavoj Žižek

Email this article to a friend

The hard lesson for the refugees is that 'there is no Norway,' even in Norway. They will have to learn to censor their dreams: Instead of chasing them in reality, they should focus on changing reality.

A condensed version of this article ran in the November 2015 issue of In These Times.

In her classic study On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed the famous scheme of the five stages of how we react upon learning that we have a terminal illness: denial (one simply refuses to accept the fact: “This can’t be happening, not to me.”); anger (which explodes when we can no longer deny the fact: “How can this happen to me?”); bargaining (the hope we can somehow postpone or diminish the fact: “Just let me live to see my children graduate.”); depression (libidinal disinvestment: “I'm going to die, so why bother with anything?”); acceptance (“I can't fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”). Later, Kübler-Ross applied these stages to any form of catastrophic personal loss (joblessness, death of a loved one, divorce, drug addiction), and also emphasized that they do not necessarily come in the same order, nor are all five stages experienced by all patients.

Is the reaction of the public opinion and authorities in Western Europe to the flow of refugees from Africa and Middle East also not a similar combination of disparate reactions? There was denial, now diminishing: “It’s not so serious, let’s just ignore it.” There is anger: “Refugees are a threat to our way of life, hiding among them Muslim fundamentalists, they should be stopped at any price!” There is bargaining: “OK, let’s establish quotas and support refugee camps in their own countries!” There is depression: “We are lost, Europe is turning into Europa-stan!” What is lacking is acceptance, which, in this case, would have meant a consistent all-European plan of how to deal with the refugees.

So what to do with hundreds of thousands of desperate people who wait in the north of Africa, escaping from war and hunger, trying to cross the sea and find refuge in Europe?

There are two main answers. Left liberals express their outrage at how Europe is allowing thousands to drown in Mediterranean. Their plea is that Europe should show solidarity by opening its doors widely. Anti-immigrant populists claim we should protect our way of life and let the Africans solve their own problems.

Which solution is better? To paraphrase Stalin, they are both worse. Those who advocate open borders are the greater hypocrites: Secretly, they know very well this will never happen, since it would trigger an instant populist revolt in Europe. They play the Beautiful Soul which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it.

The anti-immigrant populist also know very well that, left to themselves, Africans will not succeed in changing their societies. Why not? Because we, North Americans and Western Europeans, are preventing them. It was the European intervention in Libya which threw the country in chaos. It was the U.S. attack on Iraq which created the conditions for the rise of ISIS. The ongoing civil war in the Central African Republic is not just an explosion of ethnic hatred; France and China are fighting for the control of oil resources through their proxies.

But the clearest case of our guilt is today’s Congo, which is again emerging as the African “heart of darkness.” Back in 2001, a UN investigation into the illegal exploitation of natural resources in Congo found that its internal conflicts are mainly about access to, control of, and trade in five key mineral resources: coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold. Beneath the façade of ethnic warfare, we thus discern the workings of global capitalism. Congo no longer exists as a united state; it is a multiplicity of territories ruled by local warlords controlling their patch of land with an army which, as a rule, includes drugged children. Each of these warlords has business links to a foreign company or corporation exploiting the mining wealth in the region. The irony is that many of these minerals are used in high-tech products such as laptops and cell phones.

Remove the foreign high-tech companies from the equation and the whole narrative of ethnic warfare fueled by old passions falls apart. This is where we should begin if we really want to help the Africans and stop the flow of refugees. The first thing is to recall that most of refugees come from the “failed states”—where public authority is more or less inoperative, at least in large regions—Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Congo, etc. This disintegration of state power is not a local phenomenon but a result of international economy and politics—in some cases, like Libya and Iraq, a direct outcome of Western intervention. It is clear that the rise of these “failed states” is not just an unintended misfortune but also one of the ways the great powers exert their economic colonialism. One should also note that the seeds of the Middle East’s “failed states” are to be sought in the arbitrary borders drawn after World War I by UK and France and thereby creating a series of “artificial” states. By way of uniting Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is ultimately bringing together what was torn apart by the colonial masters.

One cannot help noting the fact that some not-too-rich Middle Eastern countries (Turkey, Egypt, Iraq) are much more open to the refugees than the really wealthy ones (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar). Saudi Arabia and Emirates received no refugees, although they border countries in crisis and are culturally much closer to the refugees (who are mostly Muslims) than Europe. Saudi Arabia even returned some Muslim refugees from Somalia.  Is this because Saudi Arabia is a fundamentalist theocracy which can tolerate no foreign intruders? Yes, but one should also bear in mind that this same Saudi Arabia is economically fully integrated into the West. From the economic standpoint, are Saudi Arabia and Emirates, states that totally depend on their oil revenues, not pure outposts of Western capital? The international community should put full pressure on countries like Saudi Arabia Kuwait and Qatar to do their duty in accepting a large contingent of the refugees. Furthermore, by way of supporting the anti-Assad rebels, Saudi Arabia is largely responsible for the situation in Syria.  And the same holds in different degrees for many other countries—we are all in it.

A new slavery

Another feature shared by these rich countries is the rise of a new slavery. While capitalism legitimizes itself as the economic system that implies and furthers personal freedom (as a condition of market exchange), it generated slavery on its own, as a part of its own dynamics: although slavery became almost extinct at the end of the Middle Ages, it exploded in colonies from early modernity till the American Civil War. And one can risk the hypothesis that today, with the new epoch of global capitalism, a new era of slavery is also arising. Although it is no longer a direct legal status of enslaved persons, slavery acquires a multitude of new forms: millions of immigrant workers in the Saudi peninsula (Emirates, Qatar, etc.) who are de facto deprived of elementary civil rights and freedoms; the total control over millions of workers in Asian sweatshops often directly organized as concentration camps; massive use of forced labor in the exploitation of natural resources in many central African states (Congo, etc.). But we don’t have to look so far. On December 1, 2013, at least seven people died when a Chinese-owned clothing factory in an industrial zone in the Italian town of Prato, 19 kilometers from the center of Florence, burned down, killing workers trapped in an improvised cardboard dormitory built onsite. The accident occurred in the Macrolotto industrial district of the town, known for its garment factories. Thousands more Chinese immigrants were believed to be living in the city illegally, working up to 16 hours per day for a network of wholesalers and workshops turning out cheap clothing.

We thus do not have to look for the miserable life of new slaves far away in the suburbs of Shanghai (or in Dubai and Qatar) and hypocritically criticize China—slavery can be right here, within our house, we just don't see it (or, rather, pretend not to see it). This new de facto apartheid, this systematic explosion of the number of different forms of de facto slavery, is not a deplorable accident but a structural necessity of today's global capitalism.

But are the refugees entering Europe not also offering themselves to become cheap precarious workforce, in many cases at the expense of local workers, who react to this threat by joining anti-immigrant political parties? For most of the refugees, this will be the reality of their dream realized.

The refugees are not just escaping from their war-torn homelands; they are also possessed by a certain dream. We can see again and again on our screens. Refugees in southern Italy make it clear that they don’t want to stay there—they mostly want to live in Scandinavian countries. And what about thousands camping around Calais who are not satisfied with France but are ready to risk their lives to enter the United Kingdom? And what about tens of thousands of refugees in Balkan countries who want to reach Germany at least? They declare this dream as their unconditional right, and demand from European authorities not only proper food and medical care but also the transportation to the place of their choice.

There is something enigmatically utopian in this impossible demand: as if it is the duty of Europe to realize their dream, a dream which, incidentally, is out of reach to most of Europeans. How many South and East Europeans would also not prefer to live in Norway? One can observe here the paradox of utopia: precisely when people find themselves in poverty, distress and danger, and one would expect that they would be satisfied by a minimum of safety and well-being, the absolute utopia explodes. The hard lesson for the refugees is that “there is no Norway,” even in Norway. They will have to learn to censor their dreams: Instead of chasing them in reality, they should focus on changing reality.

A Left taboo

One of the great Left taboos will have to be broken here: the notion that the protection of one’s specific way of life is in itself a proto-Fascist or racist category. If we don’t abandon this notion, we open up the way for the anti-immigrant wave which thrives all around Europe. (Even in Denmark, the anti-immigrant Democratic party for the first time overtook Social-Democrats and became the strongest party in the country.) Addressing concerns of ordinary people about the threats to their specific way of life can be done also from the Left. Bernie Sanders is a living proof of that! The true threat to our communal ways of life are not foreigners but the dynamic of global capitalism: In the United States alone, the economic changes of the last several decades did more to destroy communal life in small cities than all the immigrants together.   

The standard Left-liberal reaction to this is, of course, an explosion of arrogant moralism: The moment we give any credence to the “protection of our way of life” motif, we already compromise our position, since we propose a more modest version of what anti-immigrant populists openly advocate. Is this not the story of last decades? Centrist parties reject the open racism of anti-immigrant populists, but they simultaneously profess to “understand the concerns” of ordinary people and enact a more “rational” version of the same politics.

But while this contains a kernel of truth, the moralistic complaints—“Europe lost empathy, it is indifferent towards the suffering of others,” etc.—are merely the obverse of the anti-immigrant brutality. Both stances share the presupposition, which is in no way self-evident, that a defense of one’s own way of life excludes ethical universalism. One should thus avoid getting caught into the liberal game of “how much tolerance can we afford.” Should we tolerate if they prevent their children going to state schools, if they arrange marriages of their children, if they brutalize gays among their ranks? At this level, of course, we are never tolerant enough, or we are always already too tolerant, neglecting the rights of women, etc. The only way to break out of this deadlock is to move beyond mere tolerance or respect of others to a common struggle.

One must thus broaden the perspective: Refugees are the price of global economy. In our global world, commodities circulate freely, but not people: new forms of apartheid are emerging. The topic of porous walls, of the threat of being inundated by foreigners, is strictly immanent to global capitalism, it is an index of what is false about capitalist globalization. While large migrations are a constant feature of human history, their main cause in modern history are colonial expansions: Prior to colonization, the Global South mostly consisted of self-sufficient and relatively isolated local communities. It was colonial occupation and slave trading that threw this way of life off the rails and renewed large-scale migrations.

Europe is not the only place experiencing a wave of immigration. In South Africa, there are over a million refugees from Zimbabwe, who are exposed to attacks from local poor for stealing their jobs. And there will be more, not just because of armed conflicts, but because of new “rogue states,” economic crisis, natural disasters (exacerbated by climate change), man-made disasters, etc. It is now known that, after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, Japanese authorities thought for a moment that the entire Tokyo area—20 millions of people—will have to be evacuated. Where, in this case, should they have gone? Under what conditions? Should they be given a piece of land or just be dispersed around the world? What if northern Siberia becomes more inhabitable and arable, while vast sub-Saharan regions become too dry to support the large populations that live there? How will the exchange of population be organized? When similar things happened in the past, social changes occurred in a wild spontaneous way, with violence and destruction (recall the great migrations at the end of the Roman empire)—such a prospect is catastrophic in today’s conditions, with arms of mass destruction available  to many nations.

The main lesson to be learned is therefore that humankind should get ready to live in a more “plastic” and nomadic way: Rapid local and global changes in environment may require unheard-of, large-scale social transformations. One thing is clear: National sovereignty will have to be radically redefined and new levels of global cooperation invented. And what about the immense changes in economy and conservation due to new weather patterns or water and energy shortages? Through what processes of decision will such changes be decided and executed? A lot of taboos will have to be broken here, and a set of complex measures undertaken.

First, Europe will have to reassert its full commitment to provide means for the dignified survival of the refugees. There should be no compromise here: Large migrations are our future, and the only alternative to such commitment is a renewed barbarism (what some call “clash of civilizations”).

Second, as a necessary consequence of this commitment, Europe should organize itself and impose clear rules and regulations. State control of the stream of refugees should be enforced through a vast administrative network encompassing all of the European Union (to prevent local barbarisms like those of the authorities in Hungary or Slovakia). Refugees should be reassured of their safety, but it should also be made clear to them that they have to accept the area of living allocated to them by European authorities, plus they have to respect the laws and social norms of European states: No tolerance of religious, sexist or ethnic violence on any side, no right to impose onto others one’s own way of life or religion, respect of every individual’s freedom to abandon his/her communal customs, etc. If a woman chooses to cover her face, her choice should be respected, but if she chooses not to cover it, her freedom to do so has to be guaranteed. Yes, such a set of rules privileges the Western European way of life, but it is a price for European hospitality. These rules should be clearly stated and enforced, by repressive measures (against foreign fundamentalists as well as against our own anti-immigrant racists) if necessary.

Third, a new type of international interventions will have to be invented: military and economic interventions that avoid neocolonial traps. What about UN forces guaranteeing peace in Libya, Syria or Congo? Since such interventions are closely associated with neocolonialism, extreme safeguards will be needed. The cases of Iraq, Syria and Libya demonstrate how the wrong type of intervention (in Iraq and Libya) as well as non-intervention (in Syria, where, beneath the appearance of non-intervention, external powers from Russia to Saudi Arabia and the U.S.? are fully engaged) end up in the same deadlock.

Fourth, the most difficult and important task is a radical economic change that should abolish social conditions that create refugees. The ultimate cause of refugees is today’s global capitalism itself and its geopolitical games, and if we do not transform it radically, immigrants from Greece and other European countries will soon join African refugees. When I was young, such an organized attempt to regulate commons was called Communism. Maybe we should reinvent it. Maybe, this is, in the long term, our only solution.

Is all this a utopia? Maybe, but if we don’t do it, then we are really lost, and we deserve to be.

Correction: this story initially said that the anti-immigrant Democratic party overtook the Social-Democrats in Sweden when it meant to refer to Denmark. It has been corrected.

Our special 40th anniversary issue is out now. Subscribe today and get a free copy.

Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.

View Comments