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Slavoj Žižek: What our fear of refugees says about Europe

The true question is not “are immigrants a real threat to Europe?”, but “what does this obsession with the immigrant threat tell us about the weakness of Europe?”

Jacques Lacan claimed that, even if a jealous husband's claim about his wife – that she sleeps around with other men – is true, his jealousy is still pathological. Why? The true question is “not is his jealousy well-grounded?”, but “why does he need jealousy to maintain his self-identity?”. Along the same lines, one could say that even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews were true – they exploit Germans; they seduce German girls – which they were not, of course, their anti-Semitism would still be (and was) pathological, since it represses the true reason why the Nazis needed anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position.

And is it not exactly the same with the growing fear of refugees and immigrants? To extrapolate to the extreme: even if most of our prejudices about them were proven to be true – they are hidden fundamentalist terrorists; they rape and steal – the paranoid talk about the immigrant threat is still an ideological pathology. It tells more about us, Europeans, than about immigrants. The true question is not “are immigrants a real threat to Europe?”, but “what does this obsession with the immigrant threat tell us about the weakness of Europe?”

There are two dimensions here which should be kept apart. One is the atmosphere of fear, of the struggle against the Islamization of Europe, which has its own obvious absurdities. Refugees who flee terror are equated with the terrorists they are escaping from. The obvious fact that there are terrorists, rapists, criminals etc, among the refugees, while the large majority are desperate people looking for a better life – in the same way that, among the refugees from the German Democratic Republic, there were also hidden Stasi agents – is given a paranoid twist. In this version, immigrants appear (or pretend) to be desperate refugees, while in reality they are the speahead of a new Islamic invasion of Europe. Above all, as is usually the case, the cause of problems which are immanent to today's global capitalism are projected onto an external intruder. A suspicious gaze always finds what it is looking for: “proof” is everywhere, even if half of it is soon proven to be fake.

The other dimension is the humanitarian idealization of refugees. This dismisses every attempt to openly confront the difficult issues which arise when those who follow different ways of life cohabit as a concession to the neo-Fascist right. The tragic-comic spectacle of the endless self-culpabilization in which Europe allegedly betrayed its own humanity – the spectacle of a murderous Europe leaving thousands of drowned bodies at its borders – is a self-serving one, with no emancipatory potential whatsoever. Everything “bad” about the other is dismissed, either as our (Western racist) projection onto the other, or as being the result of our (Western imperialist) mistreatment, through colonial violence, of the other. What lies beyond this closed circle of ourselves – or, rather, the projections of our “repressed” evil side onto the other” – what we believe we encounter as the “authentic” other when we truly open ourselves up to them, the good, innocent other, is also our ideological fantasy.

There is no place for negotiated compromise here; no point at which the two sides may agree (“OK, anti-immigrant paranoiacs exaggerate, but there are some fundamentalists among the refugees...”). Even the minimal degree of accuracy to the anti-immigrant racist’s claims does not serve to justify his paranoia, yet on the other hand, humanitarian self-culpabilization is thoroughly narcissistic, closed to a true encounter with the immigrant neighbour.  The task is to talk openly about all the unpleasant issues without a compromise with racism.

In this way, we prevent a true encounter with a real neighbour and his or her specific way of life. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, noted that when he was young foreign people’s manners and beliefs seemed to him ridiculous and eccentric, until he asked himself whether our own manners and beliefs may appear the same to them. The outcome of this reversal is not a generalized cultural relativism, but something more radical and interesting. We should learn to experience ourselves as eccentric, to see our customs in all their weirdness and arbitrariness. In his Everlasting Man, G K Chesterton imagines the monster that man might seem to the merely natural animals around him:

“The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame. Whether we praise these things as natural to man or abuse them as artificial in nature, they remain in the same sense unique.”

Is a “way of life” not precisely such a way of being a stranger on the earth? A specific “way of life” is not just composed of a set of abstract – Christian, Muslim – “values”; it is something embodied in a thick network of everyday practices: how we eat and drink, sing, make love, how we relate to authorities. We “are” our way of life: it is our second nature, which is why direct “education” is not able to change it. Something much more radical is needed, a kind of Brechtian “extraneation”, a deep existential experience by means of which it all of a sudden strikes us how stupidly meaningless and arbitrary our customs and rituals are – there is nothing natural in the way we embrace and kiss, in the way we wash ourselves, in the way we behave while eating…

The point is thus not to recognise ourselves in strangers, but to recognise a stranger in ourselves – therein resides the innermost dimension of European modernity. The recognition that we are all, each in our own way, weird lunatics, provides the only hope for a tolerable co-existence of different ways of life.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.