A mass-movement, in its most literal terms, is constituted by the 140,000 migrants who recently traversed the Mediterranean or drowned. That mass movement of people insisted demands; on their rights as internationals and refugees; on their view of how unjust Europe’s migration laws are. Having articulated clear demands, they made their processions: from either a hostile police-state Hungary, or the more welcoming, Syriza-led Greece.
It is logical to want to immigrate from war-zones that emerged in what were once stable police states with higher standards of living, despite their repressions (Libya and Syria). The military and other interventions by the US, France, England and the Netherlands as a response to the 2011 regional unrest have helped bring about the perpetual insecurity. Western foreign policy of counter-insurgency had backed the young Al Qaeda mercenaries in Syria, with direct involvement of US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and Cameron-led England.
Yet the insistence of the migrants is extraordinary, and of a miraculous, enviable courage. In a police state, the absurd and the unjust, though seen for what it is, has to be accepted and will become normalcy for the terrified and conforming people. The injustice of wars of counterinsurgency and the tyranny of European anti-migration policy are being defied by the exiles, who insist openly on “a borderless world.” They have sounded their demands and are unstoppable.
When the photographs of dead children arise, finally a crack enters European complacency. Perhaps this is what Gandhi’s satyagraha-edicts meant when he talked about ‘’melting the heart of the oppressor’’ It seems the tall panels, the politics of contempt and fear in Europe have given way as many Europeans sign up to take immigrants into their homes. It was unimaginable five months back. It becomes more well-known that the refugees are often highly educated and young, useful to countries long in denial of their demographic problems as is Germany. The young Eritreans and Syrians, vocal and proud in their determination to not give in to anti-human policies, become intimidating to the European politics of fear.
The logic of the charity industry and of the European donor-class depended entirely on the same racism that led to deaths in the Mediterranean. Fundraisers and humanitarian charities fed on popular Western European misconceptions about the world’s majority that were disseminated by the industries of charity: the notion of a majority of the world’s countries being extremely poor places where most children are unvaccinated, where girls do not go to school and rape of women is a common currency. These beliefs led to a form of false solidarity with the faraway oppressed, leading to donations to NGOs. The propaganda fantasies also led to Europeans supporting the walls and police state, insisting that immigrants not come with their diseases, their misery, their religious fanaticism, their penchant for rape spurred by Oriental fantasies of a Europe where blonde women walk naked in the streets. In their heroism, the current movement of immigrants have attacked and hurt the propaganda-machine in its heart of money.
Revolutions come in divergent manifestations, but have common binding traits. They are enduring processes, and not merely a sequence of riots that result inevitably from prolonged crisis. They are not carried on mere shibboleths, bandied about in the spheres of academia, the salon or the internet. In most cases, the salon, of Western academia, New York and London intellectual lifestyle journals and other conventional zones of heated discussions (usually occurring within narrow and unfree parameters) will either ignore, or entirely fail to notice the actual revolution.
They will prefer go on endlessly talking about over-politicized trivialities and how to enforce compulsory politeness in all discourses, without changing the institutions or having actual objectives of social justice. Perhaps they will even support a humanitarian bombardment of Syria, or a coup d’etat in Kiev.
But the motor, the animating force of a revolution is that of the most oppressed people who live under constant threat, collective humiliation and danger. The genius of the poor, acknowledged and guided by the militant intellectuals so that the imagination of the poor can attain a variety of expressions within the more conservative established platforms. The revolutionary intellectual can help the poor to break into the agora of the powerful, where demands and terms are articulated.
A painting by Noureddine Jarram.
In 2012, a movement of undocumented people came into existence in the Netherlands. 600 immigrants refused for their biometric and DNA data to be registered into the EU’s database.
They held close to what must seem an ancient form of irrational superstition for most settled and well-adapted European and North American citizens: refusing to have the image of their genetic material frozen and encoded into the hardware of Europe’s bio-politics and its artificial intelligence. The immigrant men formed a caravan, what seemed like a wandering crusade or one of the ships of folly from the middle ages carrying the drop-outs and discontents of society along rivers. The men wandered from The Hague to Amsterdam, often confronting the governor and mayor. Their tents of protest outside The Hague’s official buildings were violently shut down, breaking the laws of the constitutional right to protest, rights that are available even for undocumented people being processed by law.
The refugees’ first act of civil disobedience, was the refusal to provide samples of skin and DNA so that they could be labelled before deportation. Allowing their genetic material to be archived would have meant the impossibility of ever attempting to migrate again from their unstable countries to any European or North American state: a simple scan by the control authorities of Europe would yield the ‘’search result’’ of a foreigner who had previously attempted entry, now remembered by the eugenic computer.
In a recent interview given to the Summer Deluxe edition of the Dutch newspaper Trouw, (the cheeky title was “EU, Shut the Gates!”) Maxime Tandonnet, former advisor to Sarkozy, used the rhetoric of humanitarian industries, and the need for ‘’clamping down on human trafficking’’ to justify the concerted drownings in the Mediterranean. Tandonnet laments how his crusade to normalize DNA-registration in all European passports had failed: he complained of ‘’all that silly emotion, all that uproar about how it reminds Europeans of the Eugenics of fascism’’ In the Dutch-language summer glossy, Tandonnet gave no further argument as to why his plan did not resemble eugenics: for a passionate technician, there is no need to bother with details, historical comparisons or politics; only with problem-fixing, and with the final solution that works best.
The immigrants in 2012 were pushed around to different parts of a conservative, backward country that pretends to be a beacon of tolerance in Europe. They ended up encamping in the St Jerome church of Amsterdam, scrawling their slogan in Dutch ‘’Wij Blijven Hier’’ ‘we’re not going anywhere’’ in flags they hoisted above the roofs of occupied a housing located near one of city squares of Amsterdam and the Vondelpark.
Open to visitors and solidarity, a French-speaking African runaway welcomed me in when I came to pay respects. On one floor were the Africans who understood each other speaking English and French, the ones who spoke Arabic and Kurdish had another level in the house. After they seized the building, with support of locals (mostly Dutch residents of immigrant origins) they were able to wrest it and hold on to their stronghold, after evictions and wanderings. Their ship of fools defied the rules of the new bourgeois bio-political state of Europe and its inhuman, unnatural and, to these men, ungodly regulations.
Talking to them was not an encounter with pitiful or desperate people. They were alive with the euphoria of their project and with a sense of humor. From Ghana and Burkina Faso to Libya, all had seen the most frightful consequences of war, poverty and violence. Around the table was a concordance, the agreement on what they intuitively knew as if an oracle had spoken it into their brains and bellies: that migration had always existed throughout history and that Europeans had also migrated, but had forgotten it. The Africans who were most adamant in defending the view, did not have the historical scholarly references (though these exist, and would completely back and reinforce their claim and debunk any of the technocrats who justify anti-immigration.)
The examples they used to insist on their rights were their grandfathers who fought in the First World War on behalf of their colonizing country, thus earning their grandchildren’s right to shelter in Europe. (The Moroccans have not dared mention how their grandfathers were enlisted by Franco, after his wars of conquest in the Nador and Rif mountains, to fight the Republicans in Spain’s Civil War) More important to them, however, were such figures as Yusuf and Miryam (if they were from a Muslim country) or Joseph and Mary (if they were Christian) who had to flee with their child into Egypt. They talked about the flights of the Jews, the Exodus; and of course Mohammed having to escape to Medina. “We are like the chosen people!” they said. Such a self-belief, such a metaphysical arrogance and hubris is made a basic necessity, a mental program, for survival’s sake.
In the migrant stronghold, in the Ship of Fools in Amsterdam, the immigrants were discussing actual Liberation Theology, without necessary fore-knowledge of the works of that persecuted school of Jesuits from the 1980s Central and South America as well as Africa.
By attempting to back their actions with thoughts and with a clear and consequent utopian insistence, referring to the ancient poetry of the Bible, the uneducated men became erudite, their imaginations emboldened beyond the common materialism and the desire to become nouveau riche so common in much of third world.
They talked about socialism, not being able to refer to specific thinkers other than politicians from a more idealistic and secular phase in 20th century pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabist populism that their parents remembered, naming their children after a Nasser or a Thomas Shankara. They spoke of subjects that today’s postmodern left-wing salon will only mention with cynicism, blasé dismissal and quotation marks: liberty, equality, freedoms such as freedom of movement and freedom of speech, democracy.
It has withstood, almost a sickness, a Jerusalem syndrome: one of the Libyan survivors in September 2015, three years later and recently shipwrecked, spoke to an Iranian documentary film maker as I translated his French for her. He said that he loves Syriza for how it insisted on harbouring the immigrants while the other countries let them die in the Mare Nostrum. He denounced the Algerian royalty that ruled Libya before Ghaddaffi’s coup, as well as ‘’the wretched children of Ghaddaffi’’ and that he had lived in exile for 32 years, that he lost every battle and yet insists that the border politics of Europe are an inhuman and artificial invention, just as the borderless savagery of the ISIS-caliphate is also a crafted, artificial aberration, a perversion and not Islam.
The liberated slave Frederick Douglass, who became an American essayist in the 19th century, wrote that ‘’there is no one who will not understand that slavery is wrong for them’’.
The Libyan exile knows, intrinsically, that life is worth nothing if he is unfree. Naively, he insists how the border police who let shipwrecked children drown are an aberration of Europe, inherently opposed to the good in European values, just as the IS caliphate is an abomination and not Islam.
His father was murdered, and only recently did he hear of his son being still alive, waiting with his brother who is a legal resident of Paris. “I want to see the tomb of my father. My brother might not know his daddy is dead. I did not know my son is still alive until talking to my brother on the phone’’ The crying man then, almost comically, mentioned his love for Syriza again, and that he must hurry now on his way to give an important press conference in the Vondel park.
Maybe he’s a crackpot, a heretic; but his folly is part of an unstoppable ship of fools that rails against the normalized inhumanity of the technocratic, biopolitical and racist border controls of the EU. Revolutions don’t come about from the talking heads of refined, articulate and nuanced speech, from realists, from cynics who claim to be experts. Many left wing opinion makers who fill the journals of the articulate left, are the immediate consequences of an age that has repressed and ignored its poets and conjurers, instead allowing only for ‘’theorists’’ and for political scientists who are in every way attempting to sound like mild-mannered and meek forensic scholars. It is time to make way for the caravan of desperate fools, and to be in praise of the folly of runaways. Theirs the genius and the vision of the poor at their best.
Revolutions can directly seek armed resistance, or disarmed, massive civil disobedience. They are movements born of the desperate and determined people who insist on a utopian vision. The articulate and informed elites who seek a compromise with power will always dismiss free thinking—when the poor and amateurish are doing it, instead of when the liberal intellectual, the professional, does free-thinking. What they dismiss as a childish fantasy can suddenly explode.
For the person immersed in desperate and infernal circumstances, there is nothing else to insist upon: a radical vision for the future, a workable utopia. Its paradise, or nothing. They know all too well that death is the only certainty; they understand how there are many worse things than death.
The knowledge that one’s hell is entirely undeserved makes the insistent thirst for paradise—which is, basically, freedom and all its human difficulties, terrifying in breadth. Courage and humour are reinvigorated in such a struggle.