Show Hide image

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.

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.