CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
Painting by Nour-Eddine Jarram, inspired by the families of Arab shipwrecks.
The Danish parliament has announced a unilateral decision, after its ruminations since late 2015 on whether or not to seize the assets and jewels of refugees. Despite minor controversy among the Danish politicians, it was clear from the outset that the motion would be a chilling ‘’yes’’ to the prospect of the Minister of Justice: take their assets and their jewelry, in exchange for the Danish having to shelter the refugees and survivors who were allotted and imposed by Germany on the other EU member states.
Many supporters of the policy, in Denmark and neighboring countries claim to see a logic in Danes ”covering the costs” of taking care of refugees, reducing all to money, ignoring the horror of the vulnerable. The jewel-taking, however, is clearly not about money, for more than enough funding has come from the UN refugee agency and from Brussels for Denmark to harbor the newly arrived 17000 shipwrecks. Arguments that fed the flames of a one-sided and dehumanizing discussion, included the propaganda and moralistic scare-mongering about ‘’people smugglers’’ and ‘’human trafficking’’ circulating in Europe and in the United States (according to Time magazine, the refugee crisis was ‘’masterminded’’ by Sicilian mafia who “seduce Africans and Syrians into the illegal boat-ride”) The myth-making resonates with nostalgia for that identical reactionary tone of the failed “War on Drugs” to such a degree that innocence is made impossible. It is well known what the “war on drugs’’ led to, that it failed catastrophically from the moment it was launched in the Reagan 1980s, that it fed terrorism.
The solution to the drug problem was legalization. The solution to the narcotics industry is the same as the solution to illegal human trafficking in the war on that natural, primal human tendency to migrate: legalize it. Whether the traveller leaves his familiar enclosures to fulfill a curiosity, or chasing a daydream, or for the reasons that are far more appropriate and respectable on an application-form for residency, to survive a war or to escape persecution: the penal solutions are none and the legal solution is freedom.
Denmark’s discussion about jewel-confiscation was the most recent instance in a carnival of the grotesque that has enflamed the Northern-most countries of the European Union: how to systematically ward off and discourage travelers and refugees from wanting to come to the prosperous North. Primitive and savage acts are made by the once tolerant-seeming, politically correct people, as if to create a talisman that will castrate and frighten the approaching superstitious foreigner. Denmark paid for full-page ads in Lebanese newspapers telling refugees not to come to Denmark, for their reception would be a grim one. Søren Pind, Justice Minister first proposed the idea of confiscating jewelry and assets the immigrants had smuggled to pay for their journeys through Europe. Though it seemed nuttier than Hamlet, “Proposition Pind” reached a full majority from the extreme Centre (liberal-right Venstre (Danmark Liberale Parti), the right wing Danish Volk-Party, the Liberal Alliance and the Conservative Populists) reaching a deal with the only opposition party, the social dems.
Police will be allowed to search the clothes and luggage of migrants, scouring to take their jewels and hidden treasures. The puny and pitiful objections by Social Democrats were satisfied with the promise that wedding-rings and trinkets of “emotional significance”—words that are meaningless to a racist, harsh and protestant Danish right wing—not be taken from their wearers.
The Dizziness of Freedom: Refusing the Journey Through Dread
Coinciding with the momentum of the jewel-heist decision was a far less predictable scandal: Danish police raided and closed an exhibition of nude photography, in central Copenhagen, for causing civil unrest. Such a move was unimaginable to many who had known Denmark to be among the leading taboo-breaking European societies, on the frontiers of sexual liberation since the 1960s, the first to screen pornography in legal cinemas. (Travis Bickell’s favourite Euro-films in Taxi Driver doubtlessly had Danish dialogues, perhaps with a Swedish dubbing)
The obsession with appropriating and misusing sexual liberation and gender-equality, in order to promote the fear of immigrants who might violate these freedoms, has finally led to the farce and parody enacted so theatrically by a society now in the grip of mass-psychosis wherein words, ideologies and culturally upheld notions have lost all meaning, inverted by the fear of foreigners. Scandinavians were once hailed for brave open-mindedness.Could such erratic censorship, alongside the totalitarian, brazen violation of refugees, find its roots in a panic over what Danish philosopher Sᴓren Kierkegaard called “the dizziness of freedom’’?
In his 19th century work “The Concept of Anxiety,” Kierkegaard wrote under the prophetic pseudonym “the watchman of the harbour’’ explaining on the need to accept the all-consuming dread and terror caused by the notion of human freedom. Rather than to flee in panic, the dread of the unknowable can be faced with the adventurous curiosity of children. Children can be the most curious as to newcomers and foreigners. Fear, as occurring in the animal world, has a definite object. In Kierkegaard, Dread names another reality than mere fear: dread is undefinable everywhere, like the invisible enemy in the wars “on terror’’, “on drugs’’ or against migration, and not unlike the Drones and surveillance deployed over enemy countries: dread names no specific predator. Kierkegaard also insisted that love is urgent, “love is to be presupposed”—as he wrote in “Works on Love’’ The journey through dread must be made. (A century later, Chilean poet Raúl Zurita wrote philosophizing verse explaining how ”love is urgent” and to be presupposed.)
European xenophobia, not financial crisis, embodied the politics of fear that went on to justify the deliberate erosion of welfare-states in the 21st century. Immigrants are vital to the strength of economies and putting up borders has only worsened the financial crisis, which was minor to begin with: a financial crisis of Northern European anxieties about finances, not of harsh realities as experienced in much of the world. Xenophobia, the fear of the foreigner, owes much to the propaganda of class warfare in Europe. But the Xenophobic dread also results in the attempt of inhabitants of rich countries to make their anxiety have a defined object: the foreigner. After the exodus by the war-survivor, the Journey through Dread need be made by their Western host: a leap of faith, a presupposition of compassion waiting on the other end of compassion, if love is too much to believe in.
European Propaganda of Discouragement: Between PR and Psychological Torture
Before the Danish elites transformed into Ali Baba’s Den of robbers (a magical shift of roles defying “Orientalism’’) nearby Netherlands’ ruling political party had one of its spokespersons—former minister of culture (!) Halbe Zijlstra announce in a surreal press conference that ‘’no free plastic and cosmetic surgery for refugees will be paid for by the State” Dutch politicians of all tiers promised there would be a ‘’sober reception’’. Even the conservative press responded with alienation and revulsion at the comments.
Such grotesque xenophobic spectacles are a routine scare-mongering, directed at immigrants. These performances, testing the limits of European sanity, resemble the way a man newly in prison or lost in a bad neighbourhood tries to prove himself ‘’crazy’’ or otherwise threatening in order to avert danger. Scarecrows lifted up by the Peasants-and-Merchants Parties are often justified by their apologists as necessary, even ethical. The aim, supposedly, is to filter and separate the genuine needy and war-refugee from the ingenious ‘’pleasure-seekers’’: newspapers and appointed sociologists divulge rumours claiming that many of the asylum-seekers believe in a hedonist paradise existing within the confines of the EU, and that within a matter of years they will attain their free refrigerators, televisions and washing machines from the state, rather than survival (what’s that anyway?) they expect swimming pools, call-girls and Mercedes. The consequences of war, and the memory of how Jews during the holocaust travelled around the globe in search of safe harbour only to be turned down and sent back to their executioners, seem not to play any role in a bureaucratized, half-asleep Europe that once saw its moral touchstone in lessons from the holocaust. Instead the logic of consumerism dictates both European desire, and European nightmares and paranoia.
The refugees, by their perilous escape-journeys against all odds of natural selection, have proven formidable courage, quality and wits, showing themselves to be promising and talented contributors to a European society. They fled racist and religionist warfare at home, saw relatives and fellow runaways fall to the waters, swallowed up by waves. Such extremes bring to memory the biblical myths of people swallowed up in a Leviathan, a whale imprisons the shipwreck in its vast cavernous innards. But the shipwrecks not met Leviathan until they got into the authoritarian machinery of the European Union, in countries such as Denmark, awash in a profound panic and moral confusion that arises from years of propaganda made by anti-immigrant politics. “Jonas” is a typical Nordic name in the country of whalers.
A Western liberal democracy that was once seen as a beacon of transparency and freedoms, transforms into a belligerent and juvenile den of robbers using gestapo-like practices. The Danish belligerence, like the Hungarian, the Dutch and Polish in defiance of Merkel and the EU, is a denial of having been provided vast funding and support over the years. The defiance signals the state of impunity granted by a morally bereft and management-oriented European Union government to its favoured members. Critics of the European Union’s flaws as a mode of government, such as the French political theorist Pierre Legendre and late British professor of politics and law Grahame Lock, had argued early on in our 21st century of border-patrols and highwaymen that “European Union” is a morally fragmented association of management, based on a contractual form of government that is fit for corporate or mercantile unions, but cannot run a country, let alone a ‘’concert of nations’’. The EU charter contains such articles as the concept of “Normative Power”: the EU is meant to instigate and demand certain “European values” of its member states, moral and modern liberal ideals that must be lived up to by both members and the desperate applicants for European donations and aid. An example of such norms is the exhortation to discourage states from using capital punishment—though the campaign hardly succeeded in abolishing the death penalty from all countries in the Shengen. Hungary and Austria still want to execute, though France has let its guillotines go to rust.
The punishment and racism directed at Greece in response for defaulting in the creditors union is a matter of imposing normative power. But the response to Greek ‘’decadence’’ and corruption, swiftly calling for disciplinarian management, is in a stark, obscene contrast how Denmark’s impunity and defiance of the EU decisions has gone unpunished.
During the deliberations about whether or not the EU would boycott Hamas after the election victories in 2006, the EU attempted a compromise: as Hamas rose to office by a free and fair election among the Palestinians living under occupation, it was decided they would recognize Hamas as being democratically elected, to the discontent of the United States. At the same time, Brussels decidedly withdrew all financial aid mechanisms and NGO involvement from any part of Palestine dealing with the organs of the Palestinian government: Hamas, an Islamist organization, listed as a terrorist movement and an enemy of Israel, did not qualify for EU support. On paper they recognized the democratic victory, in practice they boycotted. Can a similar response be used by the EU against the extremism of insurgent states within the European Union? Must only Greece and other Balkans receive sanctions inside the EU for defaulting on financial creditors?
Jargon-like words, Normative Power, reminiscent of a post-structuralist text, simply mean “moral standards” alongside the financial power and education necessary to enforce them by coaxing with aid or threatening to withdraw support. If there is such a European conscientious power, it had a relation to the memory of the unlimited brutality of fascism that led to the holocaust.
Where is Normative Power in 2016, when the Danish parliament has ratified the razzia and the stealing of jewels and assets from refugees?
Robbery characterized the fascist regimes that rose by putsch and by invasion in Europe. Robbery was the crucial pastime of the Gestapo and of Nazi bureaucracy. The anti-semitic imagination held that European Jews were hiding vast amounts of wealth, under the hovels of the ghettoes. The Nazi surprise was at not finding such luxuries or riches as they had believed were occulted by their victims. Founder of holocaust studies Raul Hilberg had throughout his scholarship pointed to how the first Jews to be executed in the camps were the very poor from the vast ghettoes and slum-like conditions of particularly Eastern (or “Central”) Europe. After the impoverished among Jews and gypsies, came the other undesirables: leftists, intellectuals and artists. Though many motives existed in that architecture of human elimination, one of these was undeniably the central importance of robbery to the Gestapo.
Not even forty years later, in the 1970s regimes in Latin America and throughout the Third World, robbery again came to characterize the methods of juntas and police states. The Argentinian junta plundered their own countries’ economies, selling them to foreign investors. The Argentinian military police (today applauded as heroic by the current right-wing government) stole children from their parental homes. Grotesquely, they stole the doors of houses and the refrigerators: the perverse robbery characterizes the police state from its economics and its investment planning to its tortures of dissidents and its taking of political prisoners.
The Danish supporters of the jewel-thieves’ den will hate such comparisons. The right wing in Austria hates such comparisons as well, for its spokespersons consider themselves having been “victims” of the Germans during the second-world war, rather than eager collaborators. The Danish and the Dutch have merely sung elegies of self-praise for having supposedly been heroes of the Resistance.
It becomes necessary to draw the most feared comparison, in order to point out how the technocratic and neoliberal imaginary of the European Union has shown itself to be a farce. A management organization cannot possibly substitute a government. That is not a radical Marxist statement. G.W.F Hegel—the obscure stout German philosopher and academic, who Marx was proud to have ‘’turned upside on his head’’—writing in 1821 insisted that government cannot be rooted in contractual and private institutes in a quest for ‘’efficiency’’. Hegel, who envisioned a ‘’moral baroque state’’ that functioned as clockwork and exerted a terrifying “pure morality,” is one of the foundational thinkers of what became the German ideal of political power, even today despite the assault by the managerial politics of the EU. Much to the discontent of Merkel’s party, German supreme court ruled in the summer of 2015: refugees must be accepted, and distributed equally through the Union. Refusing the entry for the refugees could not hold up against the constitution. The paradigm of management continues to be tested around the world proving itself useless in a time of resurging barbarity, racism and ethnic tribalism.
The European Union’s finally living up to some moral resolve as it appointed refugee centres to open up in cities in Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands has led to a scattering of provincial uprisings. Local police are terrified of showing any toughness when stopping a small, anti-democratic minority of hooligans who come from the same social group. These hooligans have determined to prevent democratic resolutions and successfully intimidate the politicians who were reluctant to impose the German diktat, but who saw no freedom to live up to their anti-immigrant record once the decision of the European Union—an entity they had agreed to obey, to their profit—had been reached.
A weakness among the European left is notable. Instead of discussing the crimes of Denmark’s migration policy, the left prefers discussing Charlie Hebdo’s most recent cartoon, or the appropriateness of a statue of Cecil Rhodes in England.
Instead of turning outrage into a political pressure on EU functionaries to impose law and order, here we are on social media sublimating outrage into delightful vapours.
There is a cause for the illusion that prevents the workers from distinguishing their interests from the interests of the police, as they share a similar class background, but more importantly no one has been egging them on in confrontation with their class enemies, so that they are led to believe in an enemy ethnicity standing outside, threatening their white working class interests and culture. The factory-workers and the employees of state security apparatus are somehow not forced to see that their interests clash, that some of them are no longer of the same socio-economic class by having turned to the service of the repressive mechanism of security state. In the US, Trump addresses both the ‘’American working class’’ (does not include Mexicans in the US) as well as ‘’the good hardworking people of the border patrols and immigration services’’—the latter never made out to be the bureaucrats and civil servants who are elsewhere objects of right wing scorn. The border policeman and the factory worker, both of the same ethnicity and skin-color, pretend to be the same class and the illusion remains unchallenged. As Rosa Luxembourg liked to say “Those who do not move cannot notice their chains”
During years of neoliberal government reform, the left was not present to rally the workers in opposition to austerity and draconian policies. Had such strikes taken place more often in both Europe and North America, the white working class would no longer have the delusion that the policemen, police-women and border-patrol are their fellow workers as the right wing extremists claim they are: they would have too often seen the police beating and bashing the heads of workers and of the leftists who defended them. The police are now careful to upset the illusions of solidarity and conviviality. They are careful to make their lives unliveable by enforcing the laws. For that reason they cower and they allow a tiny minority of thugs to torch refugee centres and to sway the will of politicians. The left has to be there, to hit back, to defend the refugees not merely with blankets and food, but to beat up the fascists and would-be brownshirts. Immigrants and refugees must no longer be the dehumanized and objectified targets for vandalism by which Europeans express the resentments of class warfare. Cowardice plays an immense role in how class-warfare has been inverted and turned into a battlefield using the immigrant as a bullseye or a prize at which violence is directed. Within European borders, as in imperial foreign policy, cowardice has most typified the faceless era of the Drone.
Deadly Double Standards
Compare the outright criminal decisions of the Danish parliament to the Greek situation. Greece was punished, first for having defaulted on its credit lines. It was then punished once more, with a fervour of penal populism rallying Northern Europeans, because the Greeks voted the wrong way in 2015. The black sheep of Balkan countries had elected a party that campaigned on empty and unsubstantiated promises of clashing with the creditors. Syriza, led by the gambler and opportunist Alexis Tsipras, was not able to stand up to adversaries, not meeting the left wing nor right wing criteria for professionalism.
All of Syriza’s plans had gambled on the hope that the Germans, Brussels and the Dutch did not mean what they were saying all along, when they claimed that Europe the commercial entity and trade union could easily march onwards in its Progressive daze without Greece. “Oxi!’’ the landmark “No” vote of the Greek people during the referendum was disregarded, both by Syriza and by the Euro-group commission, as an even harsher set of payback conditions were ushered in. As the officials of Emperor Napoleon III liked to say “Referendum is Latin word for yes!” [i]
The Dutch labour party minister Dijsselbloem (a vital member of the Euro-group) and the Dutch prime minister have announced that Greece will likely be expelled, for having let the refugees cross into the wider EU. Dutch newspapers have savants writing columns on how the Greeks ‘’score low on citizen morality’’ and Greek inability to live up to the moral standards of the EU.
Throughout the hysteria about Greece not living up to European standards, the chatter of so-called Normative Power played a role. Underneath it, more importantly, there originated a cultural and ethnic divide in Europe, as explored by economists such as Ulrich Beck and experienced in the daily lives of Southern Europeans now under German domination. Neoliberalism tears apart all preconceived structures of conviviality and cohesion in what it claims is a ‘’progressive’’ transformation and dynamism. The wake of neoliberal ‘’progress’’ leaves a society in shock, seeking footholds in the archaic. The new, unpredictable order of ‘’liquid modernity’’ exacerbates tribal and provincial consciousness and competition between groups, allowing no place for nuances, for contemplative thought or individual expressions. A managerial cult of efficiency calls for war, fighting against decadence and bureaucracy. Greece and Italy represent decadence and ‘’papal’’ corruption in the archaic memory of the North European. These national attitudes manifest in the current divide in the EU as it united the protestant, economically leading countries of the North against their old reformation-era cultural adversaries: corrupt Mediterranean societies, whose decadence needed be punished. The current EU divide is another manifestation of European identity politics that play into the right wings on both sides of the divided union, bringing many double standards.
Where is there any comparable punishment for Denmark? Such cruelty as was meted out to Greece can happen only according to economic lines and weaponry, as the European Union remains a mercantile association. Rogue behaviour from the Danish government can expect no similar thrashing.
So far the only threats of retaliation towards Danish belligerence came from Muslim groups in years previous to the current refugee crisis—the Emirates threatened to boycott Danish lego and other exports when Denmark banned Halal food. The comical scuffle arose between the Danish right and Muslim religious activists, who might include some of the supporters of the Da’esh/Isil deathsquads.
Europeans who revile Islamism and political Islam seem blind to the fact that many of the current refugees happen to be victims of Islamism. Those who are now trying to gain refuge in Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden might one day grow into the living end of the problem of extremist Islamic radicalization in Europe. If young Muslims lived side-by-side with the victims of Da’esh’s atrocities, the romance with such brutal death-militias would be more swiftly unlearned and forgotten. The spectacular executions by drones have not discouraged young Muslims from joining the Saudi-backed Isil/Da’esh deathsquads. Compassion, and not drones and border policing, can change the tide of fascism.
[i] Lock, Grahame “The EU is not a government, it is a management system’’ on the website of Adelino Torres.