Friday, 25 September 2015

What Can Corbyn Do? What Can the Movement Do?

What should we - supporters of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party - want? The point of socialist politics is not to form governments on the basis that they will lead the majority of people towards some bright future, but to build confidence among working people, a confidence in the idea that they can really change things themselves, through institutions they participate in and with ideas they help develop. Of course, election victories are part of that and we should all work towards a socialist election victory. But our ends are much bigger and broader: we want to see a change across society, and to achieve this we want to help change how people think about both society and politics. We want it acknowledged by the broadest number of people possible that the present society is exploitative and, crucially, that it can and should change for the better.

Were Jeremy Corbyn to succeed in these aims, it would indeed spell the effective end of the Labour Party as we know it - not the Party as it has been since Blair or Kinnock but as it has been since its inception. For Labour is, in Cliff and Gluckstein's phrase, "the capitalist party of the working class." It is dedicated wholly to the pursuit of a few, albeit legitimate, desires of British workers via strictly electoral means, with an ideology of class "neutrality." This set up has persevered doggedly across conjunctures. But to follow such a critical position through fully we must also accept the obverse: as long as Corbyn and his followers remain fast-fixed within the confines of the old Party processes, they cannot succeed. For the very electoral logic they pursue must necessarily dismantle the broader program for systemic change that has propelled them this far. 

From this perspective the crux is neither to prioritise victory within the Labour Party (winning over MPs through compromising and inclusive measures) nor to win "the electorate" in the abstract, but to encourage the mobilisation of working people as a group with their own distinctive needs and powers, armed with alternative institutions to those of the ruling class. A movement conscious of its goals and challenges is always the priority. 

Corbyn's attempts to win over sections of the Labour Party are necessary for fostering a wider politicisation; they are also far from the whole story. Of course, convincing, radical policy platforms and parliamentary victories are necessary. However, the momentum can only continue if these "official" political events bounce dialectically off extra-parliamentary developments. Leadership must mean the power to drive social developments in a direction of political intensification. Meanwhile, working people must drive towards articulating socialist goals in the spaces cleared by the leadership. The two must drive each other forward. Without such an interaction between extra-parliamentary protest and the leadership (which means an ability to listen and react to new developments on both sides), this whole thing is doomed.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Tsipras' State: Greece between Mitterrand and Lula

Syriza has won elections again in Greece. Yet with each passing turn of the electoral screw access to real power is further restricted. Most international commentators are already blaming the record abstention at this weekend's elections (nearly fifty percent) on the failure of Greek parties to meet voters' aspirations. Yet in such a situation of imposed constraints on democracy by the European power structure - in which even the attempt to bring electricity to the poorest homes is vehemently opposed by external creditors - there is little wonder that so few bothered going to the polls.

Alexis Tsipras - for it is increasingly to the individual that the media refer, rather than the collective whole of the party - has two broad models on which to base his radical compromise with neoliberalism. 

The first - perhaps the "ideal-type" of contemporary socialist failure - is that of Francois Mitterrand in France. Against the tide of state bankruptcy in Europe, Mitterrand ran the 1981 election in France on the promise of a definitive break with German tight money policies and a defiantly Keynesian, pro-labour economic reflation. While becoming France's most successful ever Socialist leader, Mitterand - gradually and then rapidly - adjusted to neoliberal realities. Germany and the US stuck to deflationary policies in the crucial first years of the Mitterrand government, also those of a recession that was being used to end inflation in the capitalist heartlands. With France peculiarly economically vulnerable and uncompetitive, a position of temporary deferral of the electoral program was developed, to be substituted by "rigueur" (austerity) and the "franc fort" (strong franc) bound (via the EMS) to the German DM. 

The French government either would not or could not break decisively with Europe and the US, and piece by piece the ambitious Keynesian plans were dropped. The only alternative to this capitulation was perhaps direct control of newly nationalised banks and increasing state control over investment. These in the end were steps that went far beyond the left's Common Program (ironically shared by the Communist Party).

Tsipras and Syriza have never promised anything as extensive as France's Common Program. Nor have they flirted with so radical a break with orthodox monetary policy as running outright deficits. Yet the reversal of course has been equally deep, if sooner and more rapidly extracted. The latter reflects not only the size of the Greek economy but also the Greek state's sorely reduced power as a vassalised EU hinterland.

Mitterrand was, for all his reversals, the most successful of France's postwar Socialist politicians. Under his watch French "dirigisme" was done away with, as privatisation - in step with, and even ahead of, the global fashion - advanced in the name of restoring private investment levels and profitability. Mitterrand had once proclaimed the need for "revolutionary reforms" to French capitalism. In his later years he became obsessed with inflation, efficiency and productivity, which were restored via private means at enormous expense to French people in terms of employment and welfare. Such an ideological volte-face must surely await Tsipras, as the commitment to neoliberal structural reforms becomes a less reluctant one. 

Yet there are happier precedents for such integrations into the neoliberal world system. Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva ended his political career In Brazil on a high: his time as President from 2003 to 2011 had seen massive reductions in poverty via the famous Bolsa-Familia payment. This was a conditional cash transfer made to mothers in order to keep them out of poverty and to boost the consumption of the poorest. The Brazilian economy boomed under Lula, who had become the acceptable face of Latin American populism in the west. 

Lula was initially much more popular than his Party: a no-nonsense worker who had risen to the top of the Worker's Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) and become its presidential candidate. Later things would even out as this left-populist party of the social movements took office in the country at large. Once again, Lula was plagued by public debt and set about arranging for its control by the most orthodox means. In Lula's early years growth fell and unemployment rose as he cut his way to an IMF-pleasing surplus. Amid a commodities boom and a glut of cheap capital goods from a financially efflorescent US, Brazil entered a period of major growth. These funded Lula's welfare system and allowed the effects of fiscal restraint to be watered down. 

In reality, the Bolsa-Familia, despite its clearly measurable and extensive impact on poverty (it very cheaply helped families increase their independence and private consumption, and in combination with increases in the minimum wage, led to a drop in poverty from 50 to 30 million in just six years), did little to challenge the increasingly conditional character of social security. Instead of a human right, benefits have become means of imposing behavioural norms on citizens (asking mothers to prove their kids' school attendance). Though this hardly undermines the payment's significant achievements, it suggests the limits inherent to Lulaist reformism. 

The price of Lula's acceptance by US-dominated global capitalism - bought at the cost of strict fiscal limits and arm's length treatment of the private sector - was the perpetuation of a system riddled with corruption. In order to buy its place in the state, and to have its social policies effectively introduced, the PT had to sacrifice its plans to transform the state proper.

If the balance of forces was nudged in a direction broadly favourable to the poor and elderly in Lula's Brazil, limited social change was enabled by a peculiar maintenance of the status quo within the state. The results are a strong social legacy in the country at large, combined with political inertia and criminal deterioration of the PT as a governing force. The party under Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, has suffered greatly from the cost of this past success, in which corruption has become fully systematised as a governing way of life.

Tsipras returns to government in a country caught between these two extremes, a position which exaggerates the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism. His room for running an expansionary program is constrained by being at once a delinquent and discredited member of the advanced groups of countries and, at the same time, a grotesquely unequal and very poor country. Such, however, are the contradictions of societies situated at capitalism's "weakest link." Greece is politically and socially explosive not only because of its poverty, but because it is forced to act as if it was wealthy.

There are legal particularities that further proscribe Tsipras's room for manoeuvre. The EU treaty system and the euro itself act as a highly efficient muscular system of European neoliberalism. What took two years to do in France took less the six months in Greece: the total subordination of society to an extreme, even unprecedented, program of social cuts and privatisations.

Here, then, is the rub: Tsipras may aspire to either Mitterrand's or Lula's successes, that is, incorporating either left electoral victory or popular social reform into a neoliberal framework. However, he operates with deeper restrictions than either. In France the economy eventually became manageable as a result of successive devaluations, the latent potential for liberal reform in the economy, and the driver of eventual global recovery. The Greek economy lacks either possibility. Meanwhile, Lula could cheaply lift millions out of poverty due to the extremities of Brazilian inequality and his otherwise orthodox fiscal policies. By the middle of their careers neither Mitterrand nor Lula provoked much opposition abroad. Tsipras's fate may be one of equal mediocrity with none of the tangible successes - orthodox or otherwise. 

As with his predecessors constructive reform and alteration to the neoliberal model is blocked for Tsipras. Yet unlike them, a neoliberal style recovery - slow and immeasurably painful, with deflation and fiscal rectitude at its heart, accompanied by a return to profitability and enduring unemployment - may elude Greece. The likelihood is a return to the crucible of social destruction personified by the peak crisis years of 2008-2011. In this last, however, Greece's fate is probably not so unique.

For Mitterrand details I have used this:

For Lula this:

Thursday, 17 September 2015

A Letter to our MP on the Migrant Crisis

Last year the International Labour Organisation estimated that there are 20.9 million people who are victims of human trafficking globally. There are three quarters of a million in the EU alone. 

It's all very well blaming the traffickers, but like the thousands of crooked bankers who helped tank the global economy, there is a compelling case to be made that we have structural problems not just a few bad eggs. It is quite true that there must be a long-term, multilateral solution to this crisis, which has no doubt worsened this year. But particular governments must act alone first in order to encourage others to get round the table. We as citizens must also be bold enough to say, "Yes, if it is done safely, we will accept refugees and migrants into our towns and homes."

Of course, in formulating a response with the prospect of meaningful, long-term reform of the global labour market, we need to bear in mind the causes of this ongoing, disastrous crisis for so much of humanity. War has been a staple of North Africa and the Middle East for a long time. In 2011 Conservative Defence Secretary Philip Hammond celebrated the UK and its allies' bombing campaign of Libya by inviting British companies to prize open its economy and invest. Now as Foreign Secretary he talks of "marauding" North Africans at our borders, ignoring his own role in collapsing the Libyan state and driving people abroad. Similarly, much of our parliament supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which forcibly collapsed the tottering Ba'athist state, opening a vacuum for ISIS, who exploit more than a decade of instability, death and resentment.

Then there is the slow-burn economic crisis that has swept Africa since the 1970s. This is the crisis that has robbed states like D.R. Congo of their natural resources while pocketing the profits in off-shore, often British controlled tax havens. Even when the west is not there militarily it is there economically. We in the west often bear a direct responsibility for mass migration, driven either by war or economic catastrophe. 

How have western governments, left to themselves to devise a fitting solution to this homemade, exported crisis, responded? Last year they collectively cut the Mare Nostrum rescue operation in the Mediterranean, replacing it with a "nightwatchman" Italian gendarmerie. More than 16,000 people have died crossing that sea since the early 1990s. The number is over 2000 this year alone.

What about our domestic policies? We say we target traffickers, assess legitimate asylum claims, and send away those we don't want. Human trafficking and the forced labor it entails—including, but hardly limited to, sex work—follow not from the migration of vast “criminal” groups but from the increased vulnerability of migrants under punitive national immigration policies. By depriving immigrants of rights, governments create the space and help foster the demand for illegal trade in human lives.

The ILO has campaigned for a "rights-based approach", necessary for combatting the exploitation of migrant workers. Both criminal groups and legally recognized companies prey on migrants’ increased vulnerability, using it to coerce or mislead people into various kinds of modern servitude. However, the problem is not reducible to immigration. As Jakub Sobik, a spokesperson for the world’s oldest anti-slavery charity, told me: “Trafficking isn’t an immigration issue per se. It’s a crime where people use the vulnerability of other people to their advantage, so we should protect the vulnerable irrespective of their immigration status.” Sobik’s organization, Anti-Slavery International, has produced an impressive amount of research on the problems of identifying trafficking victims. “In the UK, a non-EU passport holder is four times less likely to be identified as a victim of trafficking, and often just deported,” Sobik said, precisely because of the “immigration lenses” through which authorities interpret cases.

Migrants need equal rights and safety, a bit of common decency and civility if the crisis is to end. Of course, this takes money and patience. But the cost of housing people is minuscule compared to bombing them. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the British taxpayer £30 billion. By contrast, last week Chancellor George Osbourne pledged £1 billion to "protect our national interest" in the refugee crisis over the coming five-year parliament. That's 30 times less than the aforementioned military campaigns, funded effectively by a cut to foreign aid. Still, it will house many and hopefully keep them safe. The cost of housing and keeping safe many more would still not bring the cost close to our disastrous military adventures. We could start saving by not bombing Syria, a mistake that will drive more ruined lives into the arms of terrorists.

People's lives are destroyed by military and economic disorder - often imposed or exploited by the west. As they are dragged into mass migratory flows, people easily become victims of human trafficking. These traffickers exploit a punitive legal system again enforced by our governments. Then, when they arrive in places like the UK, which has often spent billions destroying their homes, they are abandoned at borders, deported, robbed of their basic rights, or further exploited.

What is necessary for the safety of migrants as well as the "national interest" is not deregulation of the migration system, but re-regulation for opposite ends: that is, safe migration and a safer, more peaceful world. That is the real long-term solution to this great crisis. The question is whether our European governments will take responsibility and have the courage to accept that migration is not just going to go away.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A Bit of Common Decency: Fighting the The National Front in Dover

Dover shouldn't loom large in the political imaginary. A port town supposedly boasting the busiest stretch of international water in the world, it ranges a mile or two along the southeast coast of England to no startling effect.

But for its white cliffs, over which tourists dawdle on mild afternoons, scanning the massed freight below in a manner more often found among ravenous gulls. The white cliffs are a confusion of national myths. Local patriots littered the arriviste French with rocks from their gnarled tops. Others will be most familiar with those reputed "bluebirds over" that have become so indelible to our idea of the national home. Smugglers scaled them to the thrill of still other, less border-conscious locals. 

Towns like Dover - with their dreary nostalgia and proximity to the great beyond - lure in the far right. Of course, it's the tales of migrants hidden under lorries that outrage them, tales, that is, of a more modern form of smuggling with an altogether more vulnerable cargo. Ironically, if it was tobacco that was causing the holdups along the M20 today, the fascists would no doubt be cheerier about it. They reserve a special vitriol for contraband of the human type, I suppose.

After all, what other passion could tempt middle-aged men in their hundreds to this seaside-town-without-a-seaside every other Saturday afternoon? Ok, the fetish of the far right for policing migrants may be peculiarly brutal, but it is only an extension of the state's own dogged pursuit of border enforcement. Spend any time in Dover or Folkestone and you'll see the official vans of Immigration Enforcement, the sundry doings of the Detention Centre rolling out in armour-plated waves across the county. They stage set-piece raids at dawn on households harbouring the unhappy "illegals", timed to tally with denunciatory speeches delivered from Whitehall podiums. The fash, in their portly cohort of red and white, are the nasty excess of this more bureaucratic racism. They are the proverbial, patriotic enthusiasts lobbing rocks from the cliff tops in many a local legend.

They come with flags and tats and - yes - rocks. Mostly rocks. Nervous voices around the town ask where they are gathering. Naturally, in pubs. Names are floated: "The Red Lion?" Too good to be true, I think.

Meanwhile, just off Dover's knackered high street in a local park replete with a slab of bandstand, a trickle of anti-fascists turns into a heavy flow. "The London boys," someone says jubilantly as black-clad, serious looking anarchists step off beige buses emblazoned with the legend "J.B.Henry of London." They are a most peculiar group of day trippers. To be fair, though, they aren't all boys.

Dozens of police wait patiently and politely for us to start following behind them. Some film us in that peculiar way all sides seem to do at protests. The police film us. The fash film us. We film them. How many thousands of hours of footage of black-clad anarchists milling around by duck ponds must be idling in police offices somewhere? 

Then we're off, a motley crew: anarchists, trade unionists, hippies, kids and dogs. One teenager wears a white t shirt with the slogan "I'm not gay but my dad is." An afghan hound shivers in front of me. Puddles are splashed by unassuming footwear: boots and sandals. We walk, much to local consternation, through a car park and among chippies and furniture stores. Someone, take-way latte in hand, reports that the local biddies were blessing their tea spoons at the thought of the National Front coming to town. "Someone's got to do something about these immigrants," they say. 

We are seemingly police-led to a pub, quite why I don't know. Apparently the far right are inside. Chants of "Refugees are welcome here" go up. No movement inside. Then there's a roar. The front of our lot rush down an alley into a police line. In the distance Combat 18 and National Front flags bob around like we're at a really misanthropic festival. Then the projectiles come flying: rocks, batteries, bottles. I'm promptly whacked and as I back away I realise, at our exposed rear, a breakaway group of far-right marchers has arrived. 

There are no police between us and them and as they charge I realise it's going to be bloody. I catch the eyes of one skinhead in full flow. He's swinging a pole with wild abandon, all blunt rage. Rocks are everywhere. Someone is setting off flares. Suddenly I've never been so thankful for the company of anarchists: they break ranks and charge headlong into our assailants. People fall - really fall - like sacks of shopping. The police finally get between the two groups and something like calm is restored.

We are slowly surrounded by dozens of police. Vans keep arriving. The smoke clears. The more determined of our lot climb lamp posts with spirited aplomb. The police pen us into a kettle, well away from the jeering right. We are pacified for just a moment before the anarchists are off again, ploughing en masse through the police lines and onto an unsuspecting dual carriage way.

This time I escape the kettle, which forms anew, smack bang on the dual carriage way. Van after can arrives, encircling the left. People sit on balconies, mostly amused, some angry.

The police give themselves time to properly cage in the left before the far right resume their march. Most onlookers seem bewildered. However, anyone with dark skin or a foreign accent makes a run for it as the fascists approach. I see one curious German family turn and sprint back to their car when they see the fascists coming. Mother and kids at full pelt along the central reservation, stationary traffic looking on.

The fascists pass in boisterous formation and make their way to the docks. Meanwhile, the police line up with dogs in front of the left to drive them in the opposite direction.

We make our way back to the park. Life returns to a nervous normality. If not quite conquered, Dover is hardly immunised against the right. A few clearly approve. Some resent the interrupted traffic. Others think it's poor form, but after all, the immigrants are the illegal ones.

As we nurse our wounds I'm reminded of a different attitude besides that of borders and the right to punish and strip the humanity from those who transgress them. On the way to Dover that morning my new friend Mark tells me a story:

"Last week a young lad was getting laid into by these thugs, calling him all sorts. The most dreadful language you've ever heard. He was with his mum and sister, only about thirteen, and you could see the fear in his eyes. Because he had to be the man in that situation. He felt he needed to protect them. And there's these skinheads just laying into him. So I just said to him, you'll be all right mate, they're not going to hurt you. And, not blowing my own horn or anything, you just saw the strength in his eyes return. He said cheers or whatever and off they went."

It's no great saintliness or moral superiority that gets people onto the streets to protest against racism. It's just a sense of decency and a demand for civility grown urgent. To my mind we on the left stand to benefit from this simple insistence: we just want a bit of common decency. 

Monday, 14 September 2015

Podemos, Spain, and Avoiding the Tedium of Opposition

In the space of a single year a tiny and initially quite disorganised coalition of activists, university professors and students have won municipal elections and turned themselves into Spain's third-largest party. The populist-left group Podemos is led by Pablo Iglesias, who, tellingly, is as much a cultural critic as a political militant.

For Podemos understands that in postmodern politics the power of the image is all important. Spain's young insurgents didn't sulk about the oligarchic media. Instead they used their unconventional, outsider status to stage creative public interventions. Iglesias, turning his peculiar, ponytailed appearance to his advantage, showed up all over mainstream TV. He became "that ponytailed guy," who made all the withering criticisms of austerity while other commentators and politicians prevaricated.

This persona had been honed on the community TV show La Tuerka (Tue Screw), from which Podemos's novelties were developed into a series of short, incisive arguments. The "Podemos hypothesis", as Iglesias puts it in the New Left Review, was that his group could give political voice to the forces building against austerity in Spanish society - in a word, the famous 15-M movement. 

"People no longer engage with political parties," he said, "but they do engage with the media." Through what he calls a "mediatic leadership" Podemos got over the Left's historical cynicism regarding mass culture - and the mass media in particular - realising they could stage creative interventions to mobilise anti-systemic political forces. Iglesias would show up on TV show after TV show, mercilessly repeating the same shtick. As a relatively unknown quantity at first, Iglesias was given an easy ride. Only later, as Podemos gained a little more formality and saw its electoral fortunes rise precipitously, did the media cotton on to the danger they presented. Still, the hard work was already done. Podemos had broken out of the Left ghetto.

Importantly they embraced that breakout, rejecting "radical left" pigeonholing:

"When our adversaries dub us the ‘radical left’ and try, incessantly, to identify us with its symbols, they push us onto terrain where their victory is easier. Our most important political-discursive task was... to fight for the ‘terms of the conversation’. In politics, those who decide the terms of the contest determine much of its outcome. This has nothing to do with ‘abandoning principles’ or ‘moderation’, but with the assumption that unless we ourselves define the terrain of ideological struggle, it will limit the discursive repertoire at our disposal."

How, when the media is so utterly dominated by a few men with a lot of money, can an insurgent force "define the terrain of ideological struggle" within it? The answer is to reject their labels, argue from common principles, tirelessly and gladly repeat key messages, and stage "spectacular", creative interventions. Surprise them. Keep them on the back foot. Use social media to promote mainstream media interventions. Recruit not only sympathetic experts - on economics and foreign policy - but also young commentators in key media outlets. In achieving this, every possible use must be made of the activist base and of enthusiastic supporters. Creative protest must combine with creative media interventions. Above all, never slip into the tedious rhythm of conventional opposition.

Friday, 4 September 2015

The Refugee Crisis and Central Europe

The Czech police are reportedly pulling people from trains and labelling them with blue ink as the number of migrants crossing into the country jumps. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban says he's defending Europe from a "Muslim influx" by shutting down train stations and detaining refugees in camps. Hungary puts up a wire fence to stop migrants entering from Serbia. In turn Serbia steps up its patrols of its border with Macedonia.

Across Central and Eastern Europe a wave of government-sponsored immigration controls are putting a de facto end to the Schengen dream of open internal borders. Maintaining that dream has always required extraordinary police measures at Europe's limits. As those limits are overwhelmed, underlying tensions within the European Union are facilitating the creation of new internal borders.

Take Hungary. As the philosopher and former dissident Gaspar Tamas recently told Tariq Ali in an interview, "Today Hungary is a very quiet society." He explained: all social and political opposition had been defeated by the EU's most seriously authoritarian regime. The media was under strict controls. Civil society was quashed. Cultural production had reached a nadir. 

Orban is a Magyarising fantasist of the old school, a burly nationalist intent on defending Hungary from western cosmopolitanism as well as Muslim fanatics. The mystery is not his belligerence, which he has been sharpening for years, but the EU's quiet tolerance of him.  

“Everything which is now taking place before our eyes threatens to have explosive consequences for the whole of Europe,” Orb├ín wrote in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Europe’s response is madness. We must acknowledge that the European Union’s misguided immigration policy is responsible for this situation."

Orban's extremes are, however, just the sharp end of the wedge. Central Europe has been dominated by Islamophobes and anti-migrant zealots of the right and centre-right for years. Czech President Milos Zeman has called for a battle against “[a] growing wave of so-called international terrorism, that I always say [is] Islamic terrorism.” Obviously he's wrong to assume all terrorism is Islamic or even somehow "caused" by Islam. He has also barked about Roma people and "illegal" immigrants lacking respect for the Czech Republic. In Poland, meanwhile, the Guardian reports that 69% of Poles do not want non-white people living in Poland.

Whatever is to blame for this upsurge of anti-immigrant and racist feeling, it is by no means limited to "backwards" Central or Eastern Europe. Some form of it can be found in the British government's own fear-mongering about migrant "swarms." However, the particular spur of the sentiment can be traced to Central and Eastern Europe's contradictory, tenuous and painfully maintained integration into the Union. The result is in most cases a state form that mirrors the west without quite matching its liberal tone.

Germany, France and Italy are seeking to introduce balanced quotas of refugees across the EU, while many of the smaller states are in outright rebellion. Despite the geopolitical manifestation - between an intolerant east and a more circumspect west - the split is more properly conceived as one internal to European ruling ideology. Orban is no more extreme than le Pen or Farage. The only difference is Hungary now finds itself on the frontline, with the authoritarian right in power and a neo-fascist party (Jobbik) snapping at its heels.

The EU has tolerated Orban's authoritarian xenophobia, Tamas argued, because it pays its debts, keeps taxes low, has decimated social welfare, and disciplines labour.  Migration and/or asylum controls, usually understood as demands of native working populations, are also means to control the labour-force. Up to a point all these things are quite tolerable for mainstream European opinion. It is only when Orban bangs his fist on various Brussels tables that his aggression really becomes a problem.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

David Cameron Can Save Lives - Will he Choose to?

Everyday Europe's refugee crisis deepens. As the number of people reaching Europe this year - 62% of whom are from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan - heads towards one million, most European governments seem either dumbstruck by events unfolding around them or are making positively reactionary moves.

Certainly the British government under David Cameron has emerged as one of Europe's most hawkish. In an announcement yesterday Cameron saw no contradiction in refusing to allow more refugees into Britain because we should "stabilise"  and "bring peace" to their countries and his repeated past efforts to expand British military strikes across the Middle East. This is the sort of stuff the liberal right would once have face-palmed at George Bush or Tony Blair for spouting.

However, as perhaps Britain's most popular politician Cameron is - despite himself - uniquely placed to do something about the growing number of avoidable deaths across Europe. Britain could, it has been argued, house up to two hundred thousand refugees with no great infrastructural strain. This would need to be combined with measures to alleviate the social tensions that may arise from such a process.

Why is Cameron so afraid to increase the number of refugees safely allowed into the country? At the present time fifteen EU countries have accepted more refugees per head of population than Britain this year. There are at least five reasons for the government's weakness. These five reasons progress through a sort of right wing ideological prism from the abstract to the concrete. Add your own as you please:

1) The perspective of "rational expectations theory" assumes that if tolerant signals are sent to the migrant "swarms" they will, pursuing their self-interest, follow the signals to their source. This underlying assumption - letting some in will risk encouraging others - is why it suits the likes of Home Secretary Theresa May to say that most of those arriving in Europe are just here to make money. Cameron has said much the same. This assumption is an economic metaphor for real human behaviour, not a plausible theory. At the most general level then the Tory model for understanding human behaviour is woefully ill-suited to deal with a problem like mass population movement. It is myopic and fails to capture the real dynamics that drive people to seek asylum.

2) At the level of society and social cohesion, Cameron believes that the job of the wealthy is to encourage the poor to better themselves. This includes charity and, failing that, the occasional bombing campaign. He sees no necessary connection between British military campaigns or economic exploitation and population movements. If Britain is better off, it's because we've built a "fantastic place to live" under our own steam. No wonder the "swarm" wants to "swamp" us.

3) Cameron sees risks and vulnerabilities for the long-term popularity of the Conservatives in entering into a protracted refugee housing program: as they cut social expenditure to British citizens, he expects to find it difficult to justify spending anything extra on foreigners. This is rationalised as "protecting our living standards" from African "marauders" (in Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond's words). 

2) More immediately, Cameron fears that if any British government alters position in the face of international pressure, it will be accused of cow-towing to the Brussels bully boys or whichever other phantom bureaucracy troubles British sovereignty that week. Cameron wants to stay in the EU by doggedly opposing everything it stands for. This is done in a bid to convince people he's tough. Instead he's just being held hostage by a bullish Eurosceptic right. Migration and Europe are increasingly conflated among potential Tory voters in exactly the way Nigel Farage would like.

1) Finally, Cameron's social and political base relies very heavily on Middle England and its aggressive Rightist press - Murdoch, the Mail and beyond. In this sense he is hostage to their expectation that the British government will control the demands of the poor. Cameron fears his own personal popularity rests on not acceding to any humane demands which might set threatening precedents. 

All politicians operate with institutional, political and ideological constraints. As prime minister in an increasingly proto-presidential system Cameron has unusual freedom to override his own. In the end, what will really happen if he changes tack and starts accepting more refugees? There will be rolled eyes across Middle England. The right-wing press, even calling for "action" today to solve the crisis, will hardly switch allegiance to a (possibly Jeremy Corbyn-led) Labour. Some skinheads will show up in Dover and Folkestone to widespread public derision. His perceived strength may take a bit of a knock; Ukip and the Tory right may seize the initiative over Europe. These are small costs.

The prime minister has the leeway required to save lives. Will he have the courage to use it?