Last fall it appeared as if we were witnessing a political turning point. A mass movement of migrants showed fortress Europe the limits of its reach. This was, however, only a movement in the literal sense of the word and certainly not the awakening of a “multitude” shaking the foundations of the prevailing order. Migrants had no demands beyond the right to remain in Europe, a right which they had already temporarily asserted. In Germany, as the state failed to mobilize adequate resources, the logistics involved with the arrival of refugees were mostly left to volunteers. Meanwhile, the radical left took to celebrating the collapse of the European border regime as an act of “self-empowerment” or as “autonomy of migration”.
Others spied a sinister capitalist master plan behind Angela Merkel’s temporary open border policy. According to this interpretation, the policy sought to use cheap, docile immigrants to restructure the European labour market. Some on the left viewed this as a threat and have therefore joined calls for the erection of walls around Europe. They were further emboldened by the mass sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, in which hundreds of women were groped, robbed, and, in a few cases, raped by a large group of men of “Arab or North African appearance”. In light of the EU’s deal with Turkey and the internment camps currently being planned for Libya, both of these interpretations look dubious. After being taken by surprise, the powers that be have regained control of the situation and their need for cheap labour seems rather limited. On the contrary, the events of the past year reflect an overwhelming surplus of labour power, both in the countries of origin and in Europe. This surplus intensifies competition within the working class, breeding nativism, division and fear of poverty. If we are to understand this situation, we need to do more than decry racism.
Some have argued that the fissures that have emerged in the European border system would not have been possible but for the instability resulting from the so-called Arab Spring. Helmut Dieterich, for example, concludes that the ensuing mass migration is part of that revolt: “The movements of refugees and migrants have opened up new perspectives that no one in Europe would otherwise have dared dream of”1. Indeed, the 2011 toppling of despots that had allied with the European border agencies to seal off migration routes – with torture, the de facto enslavement of stranded migrants and regular bombardments of refugee boats – created a vacuum that allowed smugglers to organise the passage of tens of thousands emigrants with little interference. But did this open up “new perspectives”?
Dieterich is not alone in his views. For years, critical academics and the left have pushed the notion of an “autonomy of migration”. At first glance, this notion merely points to the fact that migrants are sometimes able to overcome state restrictions on movement. This is obviously the case. Mass illegal immigration challenges a status quo, which is in part maintained by the existing border regime. Following the workerist perspective that posits struggle as the engine of history, supporters of this thesis put the focus on migrants as autonomous agents who form a collective by moving to another country and struggling for a better life.
This interpretation seems somewhat jarring with respect to refugees fleeing the misery of war in Syria and Iraq. For them, the “Arab Spring” did not open up “new perspectives”. People displaced by war do not become agents of subversion by boarding a raft on the Turkish coast. Though certainly impressive, their trek across numerous Balkan borders is not a self-determined assault on fortress Europe but an act of sheer desperation. In countries where people’s decision to leave is not motivated by terror and civil war, the primary reason is the need to find a market for one’s labour power. The mass exodus is not the result of the Arab Spring’s victory, but its defeat.
Whatever the differences between individual countries, a growing surplus population struggling for “bread and freedom” was a significant part of the scenery from which the unrest in the Middle East emerged in 2010, to spread like wildfire from Tunisia. But the governments toppled by this unrest were soon replaced by new ones that proved just as brutal, as in Egypt; or the uprisings were transformed into civil or gang wars, as in Syria and Libya. For now, the Arab Spring has led to a barbarisation in the form of war, mass arrests of activists, torture, and Islamist terror regimes – and there is little prospect of the economic improvements that the movements had longed for. Even though most are fleeing war in Syria and Iraq rather than unemployment, this war is itself linked to the surplus of labour: reliance for subsistence on unavailable wage labour creates problems for the powers that be and opportunities for jihadists.2 Romanticisations of the fact that people flee the ensuing hellholes contribute little in terms of clarification.3
The other side of the coin is a simplistic anti-imperialism rife with conspiracy theories. Movements of migrants are interpreted as attacks on the “anti-imperialist axis”, and German workers. According to Arnold Schölzer, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Junge Welt, for example, imperialism has caused waves of migration since its inception, by globalising war and crisis. This “supermigration” engenders a “superprofit”, claims Schölzer, because refugees are potential scabs. Therefore, their “import and export […] has to be prevented” (Junge Welt, 6 April 2016). Such National Bolsheviks are no exceptions among German left-wing nationalists. For them, migrants are but capital’s pawns in its war on the native working class. The same newspaper allowed Werner Rügerner to voice his paranoid ideas, claiming that migration from Syria was part of a “NATO-sponsored labour policy” designed to weaken Assad and worsen working conditions at home (Junge Welt, 22 September 2015).
Although it is generally true that permeable borders scare workers more than capital, there is nothing to suggest that a need for cheap labour was behind Merkel’s open doors in this particular case. Just a few years ago, the German government brusquely vetoed a suggestion by an Italy plagued by mass unemployment to resettle refugees arriving on its coast across Europe. Moreover, it appears that those who arrived in 2015 are destined to spend more time at welfare offices than on factory floors for the foreseeable future.
Capital’s representatives face a difficult choice: full employment could encourage workers to act up, but burning a portion of surplus value to feed masses of unemployed is not an attractive option either. Despite all the talk of a labour shortage in Germany, very few of the newly arrived refugees have been able to find work.4 Given that three quarters of German economic leaders apparently do not see any chance of this changing even in the long term, and are relieved that the stream of immigrants has abated, claims about a “NATO-sponsored labour policy” seem quite ridiculous.5 Today’s situation is completely different from the post-war era, when Western European economies absorbed millions of workers from their former colonies and actively sought out “guest workers”.
If refugees are not bearers of a labour power that fulfils the needs of Eurozone administrators, that leaves the question of what drove the German government to suspend the 2003 Dublin II Regulation — according to which the country through which an asylum seeker enters the European Union is responsible for that person’s fate — and to open the borders in the summer of 2015. It would appear that this was an attempt to stabilise an increasingly chaotic situation: as growing numbers of migrants were stranded along Europe’s internal borders, mainly in the East, Eastern European countries were openly threatening to break with German policy, and Greece was no longer willing or able to enforce the European border regime.
The chaos primarily resulted from the ruling class overestimating its ability to steer the flow of new migration and underestimating the determination of migrants – to that extent the thesis of an “autonomy of migration” is correct. Just as the Italian government had before, the Syriza government in Greece simply stopped systematically registering refugees in the summer of 2015 and allowed them to proceed to Macedonia. There is some irony in the fact that Greece, of all countries, in so doing reasserted its national sovereignty, which had been put into question by draconian German-imposed austerity programmes.6
At home, Merkel worked to legitimise her policies by covering up the extent to which the government had lost control, and by putting a positive spin on the absorption of an unexpectedly large number of migrants. But just as Germany was being lauded internationally for its “welcome culture”, government representatives were already working to reseal Europe’s borders. This culminated in the deal with Turkey, which in practice abolished the individual right of asylum and created a situation where some refugees risk their lives so that others will be accepted into Europe.7 This combination of pragmatism, rhetorical humanism and actual toughness succeeded in reducing the number of refugees arriving in Germany.
After the deal with Turkey, Merkel appeared to have won the first round, having reestablished capitalist normalcy, secured German hegemony and slowed the trend towards renationalisation in Europe. For the German export economy in particular, maintaining the Schengen Agreement — which guarantees open borders within Europe — is critical. According to Professor Herfried Münkler’s positive summary of this pragmatic policy, “a fair distribution within Europe, better securing its external borders, stabilising the periphery — all that has little to do with idealism or sentimentalism”.8 The weakness of the policy, however, was its inability to satisfy nativist sentiment and the need for national identity within the conservative camp. That camp has so far failed to recognise Merkel’s subtle toughness, and drawn the conclusion that her government has failed.
In early 2012 refugees kicked off a new wave of protests over residence restrictions and confinement to camps, living conditions, the principle of benefits in kind rather than money, deportations and the border regime more generally. Influenced by the Occupy movement, self-organised refugees decided to occupy city squares and set up protest camps in several German cities. In the fall of 2012, refugees started a march from the Bavarian city of Würzburg all the way to Berlin, leading to the occupation of Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg. This protest camp would be the starting point of various actions over the next 18 months. Later an abandoned school, the Gerhard-Hauptmann-Schule, was occupied. Along with widespread protests in Hamburg — in which an unusual coalition of soccer fans, left-wing parties and the radical left drove up to 15,000 people onto the streets — this created the appearance that a new cycle of struggles had started.
But these hopes proved false. Without access to the labour market or persistent solidarity from the general public, the refugees ultimately lacked the leverage to assert their interests — a weakness that exemplifies the problem of the surplus proletariat. This pushed them to resort to extreme means like hunger strikes, with the state as the only possible addressee of their demands. But it was ultimately able to divide and pacify the protests, with several occupiers participating in the destruction of the Oranienplatz camp in April 2014 after the local government gave them some vague promises.
The conditions for struggle have not improved as a result of the mass influx of refugees in 2015, but have actually gotten worse. Housing in camps, benefits in kind and the re-instatement of residence restrictions, which had in practice been abolished as a result of recent struggles, are now part of everyday life for hundreds of thousands. There have been contestations here and there, but no large-scale movement.
The support that considerable parts of the German population have lent to refugees over the past year has been surprising for many who lived through the horrors of the 1990s. In that decade, a wave of racist attacks, riots, and pogroms swept Germany — some of them deadly. This support has had all kinds of motivations, ranging from Christian charity to opposition to the state. Condemned to perform the most stupid tasks for a wage, many may have just enjoyed doing something useful for a change. Thousands of volunteers collected donations, gave out food, organised activities at refugee camps, helped refugees crossing borders or in their interactions with state bureaucracies, or invited them to live in their homes. This was a pleasant counterpoint to racist rabble-rousing, attacks and mobilisations against refugees’ housing. This “welcome culture” was, for the most part, humanitarian, although, particularly in the larger cities, there were — and in a few cases still are — attempts to organise against the state.
If one speaks to the volunteers participating in the support initiatives, their anger about the government’s actions is unmistakable. Most will tell you that the state ignores the plight of the refugees, and is unwilling to provide even the most rudimentary infrastructure. The “welcome culture” came to the rescue when the state refused to help, risking becoming little more than a sort of individualised social work. This is a familiar sort of problem, and one can hardly blame the participants. But it does raise the question of the extent to which it is even possible to work towards collective self-empowerment under such conditions.
With all this in mind, it is unclear to us how the movement can regain momentum, especially in light of the fact that most refugees understandably have little sense of conflict with the state. Many are just relieved to have made it to Germany before the borders were closed. That the marginalised living in the greatest misery are the most likely to rise up is a myth of the New Left. Refugees have no inherent interest in an uprising; for many, crossing the border will be their first and last subversive act. This is to be expected, since those still hoping to be admitted to the system have more to gain through conformity. The struggle towards the destination country, across borders and past law enforcement, is an offensive one, but after arrival it tends to be replaced by a quieter and more individualised mode, as the collectivity of the refugees’ march breaks down. At that stage, the goal becomes finding recognition as a refugee, social participation, a legal status, work, and reasonable housing, rather than collectively putting pressure on the border regime. The hopes of many on the left that the struggles along the routes to Europe would be continued in Germany have not been fulfilled.
The magazine Wildcat has rightly pointed out that a merely “cultural” struggle is not sufficient, despite the necessity of an “antifascist edge”; it is necessary to “develop further ideas on how to relate our actions to social antagonism”. It is unclear to us, however, in what way the chances of this have improved as a result of the recent mass influx of migrants. We do not see how “they made issues such as wages, working conditions, housing etc. into ‘public’ issues”9 – at best they have caused a certain commotion among the native proletariat with respect to these issues. The fact that this proletariat mainly sees its new neighbours as competitors on the labour and housing markets almost seems logical under such conditions. The widespread slogan “Refugees Welcome” ignored the class question, which then returned in a nationalist form with demagogues like Pegida and Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), whose chauvinistic battle cries portray them as advocates of the common man.
That is the greatest talent of those torchbearers of common sense: “Bragging … putting on a great show of rude vigour in attack, yet hysterically sensitive to the same quality in others … constantly preaching morality and constantly offending against it; sentiment and turpitude most absurdly conjoined”10— as disgusting and beneath contempt as all this is, the right-wing populists have been more than able to channel the resentments and fears of the underclass, even if the thoroughly neoliberal platform of the AfD is hardly going to improve the living conditions of its proletarian voters.
Completely lacking in self-esteem, fearing conspiracies around every corner, always getting a raw deal: in the foreigner whom the enigmatic course of history has deposited on their shores, the subaltern see a blurry reflection of their own failure to integrate into society. This makes it all the more important to draw borders, to defend against even the tiniest possibility of identifying with the foreigner. While the conformist masses can superficially agree on the slogans of nation and people, internally this mass decomposes into thousands of egomaniacal malcontents, unable to handle the complexity of the world, exhilarated by the “authority of personal revelation” (Hegel). They preach from internet forums, filled with incoherent and unintelligible sentences, resisting any kind of communication. In this strange travesty, they constantly switch roles, go from “lone voice in the wilderness” to “foot soldier of the unfettered popular masses”. If religion served as the opium of the people in the revolutionary era, conspiracy theory is crack cocaine for the age of hopelessness.
The leftist who calls for a rehabilitation of the addicts and for unity in the antifascist struggle against the AfD and all the rest becomes, intentionally or unwittingly, no more than a militant civics teacher. Most of the established media are closing ranks against the New Right, thereby only lending their pseudo-rebellious image some measure of credibility; revolutionaries have no place in such coalitions, which include everyone from the right-wing tabloids to Protestant do-gooders like Margot Käßmann. Antifascist calls to stop the “lowlifes” — as Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel called racists protesting against him — might seem tough, but do not give any answer to the decisive question of how the nationalistic division within the proletariat can be overcome – that division, by the way, can also work without racism, as the anti-immigration stance of a number of workers of Turkish and Arab descent shows.
The systemic antagonism between surplus and potentially surplus proletarians determines the general political climate all around the developed world: “white trash” and blue collar workers for Trump and against Mexicans in the US, workers in Northern France against the banlieusards, post-communist miners from Siberia against immigrants from the Caucasus, the Freedom Party as the party of the Austrian working class – everywhere those who still have work fear that those struggling just to survive will take their jobs. Social revolutionaries are helpless and baffled in times in which the march of productivity produces ever more surplus proletarians, in which workers on shop floors direct their anger more at competitors within their own class than their common enemy, and hope more than anything to find a buyer for their labour power.
What would it mean, in light of this division, to “point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality”11? Communist critique always claimed to be more than the mere proclamation of an ought. It attempted to approach the “interests of the movement as a whole” and the potential for a free society in the present from the “immediate aims” and “momentary interests of the working class”. Hopes for refugees to become the vanguard of new class struggles are as unfounded as the search for an immediate common class interest is futile. Proletarians who cling to their German passport and make others suffer cannot simply be talked into identifying with their class interest. One can only point to the fact that their wish for border patrols to keep out the misery of a world coming apart at the seams will not be fulfilled in the long term. Communists have long held that the fear of becoming superfluous is merely the flip side of the possibility of a world without toil, that the increasing lack of jobs points to opportunities that were once utopian. Today such notions remain entirely abstract. This does not, however, preclude the continuous influx from completely devastated parts of the world market from calling attention to the necessity of a concrete upheaval that makes good on those possibilities.Friends of the Classless Society, November 2016