As I complete Glorious Outlaws, Europe appears to rely on volunteer work and citizen mobilization to ease the arrival of North African and Syrian refugees who, as I write these remarks, are at the mercy of traffickers and the hostility of the local police in various Balkan countries. Even though some Europeans act as if they were besieged, it is refugees who are saving our lives. Flocking to the gates of the EU, the refugees interrupt what a Lacanian scholar would call the circle of enjoyment: of desiring and consuming, of going into debt to approximate the lifestyles of the rich, of being struck by an occasional crisis, left speechless by the subsequent banks’ bailout, and relieved that this time it is “not us” who are made to pay.
Slavoj Žižek argues that the refugees’ desire is utopian, since “‘There is no Norway’ even in Norway.” As no perfect state or state of affairs exists, Žižek’s refugees form a makeshift dictatorship, demanding the impossible:
They assert their dreams as their unconditional right, and demand from the European authorities not only proper food and medical care but also transportation to the destination of their choice. There is something enigmatically utopian in this demand: as if it were the duty of Europe to realise their dreams [emphasis added] – dreams which, incidentally, are out of reach of most Europeans (surely a good number of Southern and Eastern Europeans would prefer to live in Norway too?).
It must be that people who have never been refugees themselves find it exceptionally challenging to fathom that refugees nurture no such illusions. At the same time, anyone whose world has turned to rubble will strive to live in the most stable country so as to forestall the crisis from ever happening again. But even if Žižek’s refugees were real, wouldn’t it be our duty to realize their dreams, even at the cost of the destruction of Europe? After several years of meddling, misruling, and exacerbating conflicts in the Middle East, renamed as conducting “peace intervention” and “military missions” as a matter of favor within the EU or a nod in the direction of the US, why are we so surprised by the arrival of people who are, in most narratives, compared directly or indirectly to barbarians? If the refugees’ claim threatens to demolish the lives of Europeans, there is some justice, not only poetic, in the concept.
The refugees’ arrival disrupts social falsity, exhibiting its pretended amnesia. The people of sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, Pakistan, and India, among others, had never given their consent to the idea of supporting the Europeans and their livelihoods throughout the centuries. A truly utopian project would pose the direct demand of settling accounts for millions of lives lost or damaged, only not with the present irrevocably corrupt governments, but with the small communities bearing the scars of injury. The never-balanced accounts between Europe and Africa rest on the piles of dead hands of the early years of the rubber collection on one end of the scale, and the splendid views of Brussels and the EU headquarters on the other.
The sub-Saharan social structures required ritual sacrifice (as documented by Achebe) but, contrary to their Western European counterparts, were never inherently suicidal, reliant on slavery (as explained patiently by Equiano) but not on cruelty and Schadenfreude. The Africans were not trapped within a system that forced them to enlist on ships seeking riches in foreign lands lest they perish, depleted by debt and unemployment. But surely no accounts will ever be settled. No one has the time to design, and even less to embark on, such a project. New injustices will follow, and the demand for a scapegoat will be satisfied by decrying the most convenient object: the inhuman conditions in Hungarian camps, the cruelty of the Macedonian police.
The refugee crisis, some say, points at another crisis altogether: the crisis of compassion. “It is deeply distressing to see Eastern European societies and governments claiming that it is morally right to shut their doors to those running from death,” a Hungarian scientist, Ivan Krastev, notes. But Eastern Europe does not think so.
Eastern Europe never took part in the Indignados movement because the idea that people burdened with mortgages ballooning out of proportion, evicted from their houses, people who fell off the employment track at fifty, people with physical disabilities, people with mental illnesses and learning disabilities, never deserve compassion has been sold to Eastern Europe as the basis of capitalism. Those who argued otherwise were accused of defying the principles of capitalism and deemed hostile to the important task of embracing it.
Eastern Europeans have this knowledge hammered into their consciences as early as grade school. It consists of only one premise: failure is the individual’s own fault. Having lost savings, job, or home, such an individual must vanish if he or she wants to avoid making demands under a threat of sanctioned public ridicule.
Neither the law nor the judgement of social media considers exceptions: even the propensity to follow the church guidelines too strictly and produce more children than one can feed within consecrated marriage will not stand as an excuse for poverty, not to mention old age dementia, mental disability, or just an inability to make ends meet, all of which deserve banishment to the camp labeled Delinquency and Shame. Many individuals readily volunteer themselves as guards to keep us under lock and key.
Trapped in cognitive failure, Eastern Europe breeds its own resentments. Haven’t we created tax breaks for foreign investors? We have, which has resulted in artificial growth of GDP to satisfy the wizards from the Economist, parallel to the slow destruction of health care, education, and retirement systems, and to the unspeakable collapse of small towns. Now, on top of that, the Westerners wish us to pity their refugees?
To the eye of the majority of Eastern Europeans, the refugees’ condition is both threatening and shameful: confused, exhausted, homeless, and driven by fear, the refugees render themselves dependent on other people’s good will. But this equation of vulnerability with failure and shame has not been conveyed to Budapest and Warsaw by Martians. It comes straight from the libertarian philosophy of ultimate personal freedom, propagated by the Adam Smith Center in Warsaw, the philosophy transplanted to Eastern Europe by advocates of privatization as the highest good, effectively replacing the ideals of the “Solidarity” movement of the early 1980s.
Eastern Europe was profusely complimented for its mercilessness when it helped support Germany’s hard stance against Greece (and protected the affluent countries from the consequences of gambling in money markets) (Varoufakis, “Refugee Crisis”). Indeed, Eastern Europe was employed in this capacity in the form of Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council and the merciless Eastern European who prevented Alexis Tsipras from leaving as the negotiators were grinding out the deal between the EU and Greece in July 2015 (Chassany). Why does it have to be so obvious that only when Western interests are threatened does brutality become brutality and cruelty deserves to be named cruelty?
Agata Pyzik, in her debut book Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West, sheds more light on the benefits that come directly from maintaining Eastern Europe in a state of suspended animation, which resembles progress only to “foreign observers” and only for the purposes of impromptu economic elusions:
What a weird combination: a low-tax free market laissez-faire economy, and religious obscurantism, anti-feminist and homophobic laws, and a massively conservative society. This is precisely what makes Poland so attractive to foreign investors, to whom our country seems so obviously secondary and lesser that it begs to be exploited, with little regard for its economy or citizens. (Cht.1)
Being backward, we beg to be exploited. The more backward we become, the stronger the justification we provide to our future exploiters. Only when our social approval tips in favor of populist or even proto-fascist politicians do we become dangerous.
(September 2015, right before the Polish elections)