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.

Slavoj ŽižekSeptember 9, 2015

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)

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

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.

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.

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.
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