Lynne Huffer and Falguni A. Sheth have critiqued the response to the European refugee crisis that would rely on simple humanitarian sentiment. As they observe, “The plight of the stateless is long-standing, one that will not be solved by a moment of compassion.” In prescribing a more practical and effective response, they draw on the famous analysis of the European refugee crisis of the mid-twentieth century, penned by Hannah Arendt. However, their application of Arendt’s faith in and endorsement of the protections of states and rights of citizenship is somewhat misguided. Indeed, while her Origins of Totalitarianism is a monumental work, in some respects it anticipates the more explicitly conservative and anti-revolutionary approach of her later work. Arendt’s republicanism fails to recognize the state’s role as an instrument of class domination, and this limits the scope of her interpretation, as well as mitigating its usefulness for a contemporary political practice.
Huffer and Sheth endorse Arendt’s analysis wholeheartedly. In their view, “Arendt’s extremely prescient argument, one still relevant today, is that the glaring humanitarian crisis cannot be resolved until we understand […] that as long as people are stateless, their humanitarian violations will never be adequately addressed.” In the Arendtian diagnosis, refugee crises prove the continuing relevance and permanent necessity of nation-states; without a state, people can have no rights. The only remedy to refugee status is a call for citizenship, and only this can prevent a kind of absolute vulnerability (what Giorgio Agamben will later famously call “bare life”).
I would like to challenge this outlook. After all, these refugees were once formally citizens of states, and yet this citizenship did not prevent their exposure to the extraordinary state violence that led to their current condition. It seems that it is not just citizenship in a state – any state – that can function as protection from predation and atrocity. The citizens of Syria and Eritrea, after all, have preferred or been forced into statelessness rather than relying on their states for protection.
What are we to make of the continuing existence of underclass populations in Europe who have the status of formal citizenship, while simultaneously lacking adequate social services or protection from persecution? For example, Hungary’s current state repression of refugees echoes previous measures taken against the Roma population, who are not refugees at all, but have resided in the territory for centuries. In Hungary’s ethnicist state, and in others like it that reject contemporary multiculturalism as well as the classic tradition of civic nationalism, de jure citizenship is much less important than belonging to the purportedly authentic culture of the nation. This is not limited to Hungary, in that such an essentialism of national culture is taking place all over Europe, including in the western states. Simultaneously, in the United States recent events have shown how little formal citizenship has done to protect the lives of black people, who are subject to extraordinary violence in spite of the legal assurances of equality.
Rather, recent events have shown the evidence of an imperial dispersal of state power, according to which core states, as well as the supranational institutions (like the troika) that serve them, systematically impoverish peripheral and semi-peripheral nations. Huffer and Sheth acknowledge this, remarking: “it is the nation-state, in its visage as empire, that has been one of the major forces behind the instability in many parts of the world where migrants are now fleeing.” However, I do not believe that recourse to the protections of these states, alone, can serve to effectively remedy the devastation already caused by inter-imperialist rivalries. The republican tradition, in my view, cannot be effectively revived in order to counter the ethnicist tendency—not under contemporary conditions. The humiliation and immiseration of Greece bears witness to this hypocritical and miserly world order. In this configuration, the simple benefit of citizenship can offer little solace.
Liberals often argue that refugees and migrants will actually benefit the economies of core nations. They point out that immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits, that they can do jobs that the pre-existent citizenry no longer want, and that they can replenish the productive population and counter dwindling birthrates. By this means, the question of social reproduction of the working class is answered by the arrival of immigrants; and this has the added benefit for social liberals of lessening the rationale for the ideological mechanisms that maintain the “traditional” family. We see an opportunist deployment of this line of reasoning in recent statements by the U.S. president aiming to counter Islamophobia by reference to potential innovation (“Cool clock, Ahmed”) and in repeated reference to the Syrian origins of Steve Jobs.
This perspective depends on projections for economic growth and employment that are likely much too rosy. Current economic crises suggest that the era of a growing middle class and relatively high employment is over. In this new context, it is unlikely that a rise in population will be met by the need for new value-producing labor. In contrast, these new arrivals may comprise a surplus population, with the exception of a few token success stories.
As G.M. Tamás has pointed out, we face a “renunciation of egalitarian principles on the international level.” He notes that states such as Hungary have appealed to racism in order to maintain the social order in the face of economic crisis and incapacity. For this reason, an expansion of the rights of citizenship, in such a state, could have negligible effects. The only countermeasure is in fact a revival of international solidarity on a class basis, including the surplus populations who will form a reserve army of the unemployed. The goals of this solidarity should include a protection and expansion of the social provisioning provided by what’s left of the welfare state, as crippled as it has been by austerity, but it also must set itself against the coercive apparatuses of force that attend state power. The hundreds of refugees who broke through police lines at the Roszke camp are in dire need of help and support, and this can only be distributed collectively. However, they are also in direct confrontation with the nation-state that Arendt aims to expand and defend. Simple inclusion in the polity cannot resolve this antagonism.
Feature Image: Hungarian police officers push back migrants at collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary, September 7, 2015. Police used pepper spray on a crowd of migrants attempting to break through a cordon at Roszke, on Hungary's border with Serbia, on Monday, a Reuters witness said. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)
Andrew Ryder is Visiting Lecturer of the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. He has written numerous articles on Continental philosophy, modern literature, Marxism, and global politics. He is presently finishing a book manuscript, titled Irreducible Excess: Politics, Sexuality, and Materialism, and beginning a project on social reproduction theory.