Among the clearest signs of capitalism’s obsoleteness, at least from the standpoint of humanity, is the growing dislocation of people caused by its crisis, by the poverty, the wars and the hopelessness it creates. The story is horrific from beginning to end. Horrific circumstances at home prompt ever more people to flee. Horrific travel circumstances cause many of them to die. And when they do reach their destination, many are locked up and many are deported, while many others remain stuck on the lowest rungs of society. Most are considered “illegal”. Increasingly, they are terrorized by the state. The influx of refugees is used, like the threat of “terrorism,” as a lubricant for the militarization of society, a license for more state control and surveillance. It is also politically very useful. Power can be gained by scapegoating immigrants (especially Muslim immigrants who can be linked to terrorism); by giving even the poorest compatriots the satisfaction of standing above someone else.
If you can’t offer real hope to the masses, you have to give them at least that.
At least for now this strategy works, as the electoral victories of Trump, Orban and other creeps show. The success of the populist right has also pushed more traditional parties in Europe towards “tougher” policies on immigration. In Belgium, harsh measured were spearheaded by Theo Francken, the minister responsible for migration affairs. One of the many cruel things he did was inviting the notoriously brutal government of Sudan to send representatives to Brussels to help select the refugees to be deported. Predictably, some were tortured upon their return. Even after he lied about the affair, Francken was not fired. His star rose in the polls. Not that there was no outcry. As elsewhere, migration is hotly debated in Belgium. One such debate we encountered on the web was launched by an op-ed piece in the newspaper De Morgen, entitled: “The left must choose: open borders or the welfare state”. It was written by Bart De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp and the leader of the NVA ( New Flemish Alliance) , Francken’s party, the largest in Belgium’s coalition government. It provoked many responses from people on the left, such as Louis Tobback, the mayor of Louvain and a leader of the social-democratic SPA , which in essence argued that De Wever’s choice is a false one. But the newspaper also published an article by a Belgian journalist who argued that neither the left nor the right has a solution for the migration crisis; that this crisis will grow, together with all the other catastrophes capitalism is generating at this stage, that it is possible to imagine a world beyond capitalism. Without using such words, the article makes a cogent argument for a communizing revolution. The translation follows below.
Nobody, not even on the left, advocates open borders, so I read repeatedly in reactions to Bart De Wever’s now famous opinion piece on migration. “Maybe you can find here or there an antiquated anarchist, but that’s it”, Louis Tobback said to De Morgen. Call me an antiquated anarchist if you want, but here follows a dissonant note in that unisonous choir. A plea for, amongst other things, open borders.
De Wever reproaches the left’s hypocrisy but he’s a hypocrite himself. He pays his respect to the ‘golden rule’ – treat others as you would want to be treated- but quickly adds: “But how close must those others be?” He claims to feel “sincere moral compassion” but “borders delimit our implicit solidarity.” Compassion that stops at the border is a plea to let people who flee from war and hunger drown in the sea or tolock them up in camps and prisons, as happens plenty already today. It’s not compassion at all. Bart’s girlfriend is called TINA, short for “There Is No Alternative.” The story: the harsh immigration-control policy is the only one possible because, without it, the suction effect becomes such that it will overwhelm us and cause chaos and a decline of social benefits like pensions and health care. Meanwhile his party helps to organize this decline. Out of compassion for our own citizens undoubtedly.
The left replies that there is a golden midway between De Wever’s cynical position and the seemingly utopian idea of ‘open borders’. According to the left, there is enough financial room for a more social policy, to give refugees a humane reception. The suction effect can be countered by stimulating economic development in the countries from which the migrants flee, and with information campaigns to convince them that they won’t escape misery by coming here; and by conducting a foreign policy which discourages war instead of trying to sell as much arms as possible and sending bombers to the Middle East.
But the left ‘solves’ the problem too easily. Let’s look a bit further than the length of our noses at the trends that shape the evolution of the world and therefore also the context of the debate on migration.
A Perfect Storm
First: Automation. Its purpose is to save labor time. So inevitably a lot of labor power becomes superfluous. The information revolution integrates and expulses. Everything becomes part of the global market. What we consume is the product of a global assembly line. At the same time, there is an expulsion process: the global assembly line becomes ever more automated and efficient. Many millions become “useless” and can no longer fall back on a pre-capitalist economy. This is already the reality in many countries in the periphery where unemployment exceeds 50 %. Which doesn’t mean that all those unemployed don’t work. If you stand for 10 hours at a crossroads selling candy and cigarettes, you also have a heavy work day.
Second: A new, deep recession is at most a few years away. The debt mountain continues to grow. They kicked the can down the road and pretended it was gone. Debts are growing because, on the whole, not enough profit is being made. Profit potential determines what is produced in our society. Debt growth is necessary to keep things going, to support the rate of profit. That is why the financial authorities have reacted to the great recession of 2008 – which itself was kicked off by debt – by pumping many trillions of dollars, euros, yens, RMBs, etc. into the banks and large companies, and by pushing the interest rate to almost zero. The latter was a crucial factor in the current recovery (the weakest since the Second World War) because the low interest rate makes credit almost free. Not for everyone of course, but rich people could easily get richer by investing cheaply borrowed money in the stock market. The rule – low interest rates for the rich but high rates for the poor – makes sense, since lending to the poor means a greater risk. This applies to both individuals and countries. It is therefore also logical that the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. And that countries have to compete vigorously to raise capital, by reducing social costs and offering tax incentives.
But inevitably the low interest rates of the rich come under pressure as well. The tension between the growing debt obligations and the falling profit trend makes a new slump inevitable. Because the indebtedness of companies and governments is now much greater than in 2008, the recession may be deeper. How far the chain reaction of failures will go is difficult to predict. But it is certain that, in all markets, the weakest competitors will be hit the hardest.
Third: Climate disasters will increase. To do something serious about them costs too much, that is, it is not profitable. Since the economy is based on profit and competition, we can expect nothing more than hollow treaties, windmills, solar panels and electric cars as patches on a festering leg. We know very well that a drastic global change in production and consumption is needed to prevent the lives of millions from being destroyed by climate disruption, but we can only watch, wringing our hands, as the drama unfolds.
Fourth: Wars will not disappear. On the contrary, the disruption caused by economic crisis and climate disasters creates opportunities for small and large imperialists, for criminals, for war lords and superpowers. Drought and floods create conflicts over scarce resources. Mass unemployment creates an abundant supply of cannon fodder.
Take those four factors together and you have a recipe for a perfect storm. A storm that will put heavy pressure on wages and social spending in the richer countries (to support the profit margin, to prevent capital flight), and that will encourage millions in the poorer countries to flee. The simultaneity of the rising impoverishment and the arrival of more and more migrants will be seized by the right to portray the first as the result of the second. By fighting the second, they will create the impression that they are doing something about the first and please voters who are looking for a scapegoat for their anxiety. The left might not play the same cynical game, but it will become clear that it has indeed no alternative. Left-wing governments, like the right-wing, will lower social spending and take tougher measures to keep migrants out. Perhaps less extreme, shedding more drops on the hot plate, but the difference will be mainly rhetorical. Look at the left-wing Syriza government in Greece, which essentially does the same as the right-wing government that preceded it: execute the orders of the owners of capital.
In Bart De Wever’s article you get the impression that the storm is already raging. In the movie version I imagine Bart, standing in lifeboat “The Nation State”, with his oar hitting the fingers of the drowning people who cling to the boat’s edge. The left tries to restrain him, claiming that there is still room in the boat. But there are so many drowning people … the triage is getting more and more difficult. Neither is wondering what is causing the storm.
We are accustomed to the fact that the economy, like the climate, is portrayed as a force that happens to us from the outside. Which we can try to manipulate but to which we are ultimately subjected. That delineates the political space, it sets the parameters of the debate between left and right. We can only do what the economy allows us to do. If things go badly, with the economy or the climate, we can only huddle inside, wait for it to blow over and shed a tear for those who do not find any shelter. We forget that the economy is made by people and can be changed by people. That people can decide to subject the economy to their needs, instead of submitting their needs to the archaic rules of the economy. The social-democratic opium pipe whispers that we can do both at the same time.
The fundamental Tina
That is the heart of the matter: the perception that the current way of meeting human needs is the only possible one: That production and consumption should rely on buying and selling of working time and of all the rest. That the main goal of society can be nothing else than to make capital grow, regardless of the consequences for the well-being of humanity. Because supposedly that behavior is ingrained in human nature, as Adam Smith claimed. Even though the economy organized by the market is only a few hundred years old and only originated on one subcontinent, it seems destined for eternity. According to Francis Fukoyama we have reached “the end of history.” From now on, only variations on the fixed theme are possible. Outside this framework there is nothing except inefficient state capitalist dictatorship. That is the ‘Tina’ for which right and left bend. We must accept the consequences as “the new normal”, even if a large part of the world may perish as a result.
An unbiased alien visitor who discovered our world would declare us crazy. He would find it absurd that on our planet 81.2 percent of the total income goes to the richest 20 percent of the population while the poorest 40 percent has to do with 3.8 percent. And that the richest one percent, whose income is the same as that of the poorest 53 percent (3.5 billion people), those who own more than what they could spend in thousands of years, feverishly continue to strive for more property. And that we believe that this pathological possessiveness is necessary to maintain society.
He would not understand that we are destroying our ecology, and that we know that we’re doing it but can’t stop.
He would find an indescribable amount of pain in our world and what would break his heart is that so much of that pain is avoidable. That millions are killed by curable diseases, that millions are starving while we are throwing away huge amounts of food, that billions are living in slums while, instead of giving them housing, we are making more and more weapons and destroying entire cities, that in our world some have to work themselves to death and others are forced to do nothing, that our economy suffers from overproduction while the unmet needs are so great …
And the only explanation we would give him is, again, Tina, there is no alternative, we can not imagine anything else.
A world without money, without wars, without crime, without hunger, without borders, a world for everyone, that defies the collective imagination. Only Tobback’s ‘antiquated anarchist’ believes that it is possible. And John Lennon, whose anthem “Imagine” is still played often. But perhaps the words are not always heard:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
Is it really unimaginable that we decide together, locally and globally, what we make and ensure that no one on earth is still hungry or deprived of health care, housing and other necessary services, that the natural environment is restored, and that we make it a priority to make production as pleasant as possible? That we can do this without money, without borders, without cumbersome bureaucracy because people, liberated from the straitjacket of earning money and making a profit, will develop an incredible creativity? That many millions who now experience their existence as meaningless will find a lot of meaning?
Much more needs to be said about this, but perhaps you have already concluded head shaking, that my view is radical, extremist and utopian. Radical it certainly is. The word comes from the Latin “radix”, root. There it is indeed where the problem is, it is not enough to try to cut away the rotten fruit. Extremist? Look around you: the extremists are already in power. Utopian? Is it not rather utopian to expect that the current form of society can sustain itself endlessly, that it can survive its increasing contradictions?
You may call me a dreamer, John Lennon sang.
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
P.S. Some have criticized this article for quoting Lennon because “a pop song is not an argument ” But solid arguments are not enough. Radical change is driven by emotion, by passion for life, by desire for a human community. This emotion, Lennon voiced marvelously in “Imagine.” One small dissenting remark on his text. He sings: “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do…” But it is hard to do. It is not easy to think outside the box and question parameters of the social order that seem evident and eternal, but that’s what we have to do.