EFP – Towards the European Forum in Rome -Roger Litten

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The Real Threat of the Foreigner




In the unfolding series of Forums it is quite apt that
the theme of the stranger follows on from that of democracy. We could try to
situate these two themes as different sides of the same question.

Taking our reference from Freud, we could consider the
notion of the strange, ‘fremd’, as the
converse of the familiar, ‘heimlich’.
Freud considers the phenomenon of the eruption of the strange into the space in
which we feel at home in terms of the logic of repression and the return of the
repressed. Lacan allows us to approach it on the basis of the mechanism of
foreclosure, according to which that which is rejected within returns from
without. The current politics of post-Brexit Britain suggests that it is even
more alarming when what is rejected from without begins to return from within.

The figure of the refugee can serve us a point of reference
in our attempts to trace the logic and the political consequences of this
process. What kind of crisis is involved in this contemporary phenomenon with
inextricable political, social, economic and humanitarian aspects? Amongst the
different registers we could suggest that this is precisely a crisis of the
principles of European democracy. This assertion might be situated in the form
of a question: Is there going to be a democratic solution to the refugee crisis
and what kind of solution might that be?



If we try to situate the so-called refugee crisis as
the inverse, the underside, of the system of European democracy, we can ask
whether the reason the refugee poses such a crisis to the discourse of liberal
democracy is not because in this figure we witness the incarnation of the very
element on whose exclusion that system is predicated.

It is thus the return of the refugee, the
unassimilable element that our political discourse is at a loss to resolve but
unable to ignore, that exposes some of the hidden conditions of the discursive
configuration of Western democracy, made up of the hybrid alliance between the
discourses of capitalism and democracy, held together in tenuous articulation
with the principles of human rights at the foundation of the European nation

Under the logic of capitalism a dynamic of expansion
and growth is required in order to maintain the precarious balance between the
margins of production and consumption, labour and goods. There is however a
point at which this dynamic reaches a limit, a tipping point where the logic of
expansion and growth is exhausted and the system begins to turn back on itself.

For a long time capitalism has relied on outsourcing
cheap labour in the developing world where the cost of reproduction of labour
is lower. At the same time it is constantly seeking to open up new markets for
the goods that already saturate our domestic market. But at a certain point
this system stumbles over the contradiction between the need for cheap labour
and the need for new consumers of the goods produced by that labour, most
obviously when both consumers and producers come to be situated in the same

One response to this contradiction is the attempt to
delimit new frontiers between zones of consumption and production. At the point
where global capitalism has profited from the reduction of tariff thresholds to
a minimum when it is a question of the export of goods, we witness the attempt
to erect new barriers against the free movement of labour travelling in the
opposite direction. The very notion of the frontier then begins to take on
paradoxical and contradictory aspects, operating as a permeable threshold in
one direction but an impenetrable barrier in the other. At the same time the
border begins to operate a prismatic effect of refraction, separating out the
rights of subjects as consumers from their value as the raw material of labour.

It is here that the frontier zone betrays the fiction
of the attempt to superimpose these two registers as if they were equivalent,
or as if one would necessarily entail the other. At the same time parallel
questions begin to arise for the associated superimposition of the principles
of democratic rights with those of human rights within the system of global
capitalism, precisely at the point where these converge in the logic of the
European nation state.

The refugee crisis, in all its forms, thus poses a
critical difficulty for the assumptions of Western democracy. ‘They’ too want
what we have, not simply at the level of material possessions, but also at the
level of all the goods and benefits supposedly assured us by the system of
Western democracy itself – security, health, freedom from oppression, freedom
of speech and association, basic values of free choice and universal values of
human rights.

Are we going to be prepared to grant refugees the
right to a share in these goods, everything we take for granted as assured us
by the system of capitalist democracy? Do they have a right to the share in
these goods, or only in principle, or only at a distance, safely out of sight
in their country of origin, but not necessarily as our neighbours? Or will we
try to resolve the issue by ignoring it, by turning our backs on it and not
wanting to know anything about it, leaving it to others to resolve these
questions on our behalf?



We can consider the outcome of the Brexit referendum
as one mode of response to this question. In Britain the attraction of not just
turning one’s back on the problem, but of actively and materially cutting
oneself off from it, is of course facilitated by the island geography that
ironically served to underpin the rise of the British Empire off the back of
naval power. Our topographical location thus facilitates the illusion of being
able to resolve the question by simply closing our borders, separating
ourselves from the source of the difficulty, and creating a hermetically sealed
land mass that was never truly part of the European continent in the first

The Brexit campaign was played out around the logic of
a fundamental alternative between the economic risks of leaving the European
market and a more visceral reaction to the immigration crisis reaching its
height during the summers of 2015 and 2016. The campaign to remain part of the
European Union was able to produce no shortage of local and international
experts to testify to the serious dangers to the nation’s economic interests
posed by separation from the common market. The leave campaign was able to play
on various ingrained and unarticulated fears about the consequences of
unrestricted immigration.

Vocabulary of ‘swarms’, ‘hordes’, and ‘waves’ of
refugees perpetuated the image of an undifferentiated mass of immigrants
heading towards Calais, looking for ways to gain entry via the tunnel that
links us to the body of mainland Europe. This vocabulary was integral to the
governing party’s long-standing strategy of bundling together foreign
nationals, economic migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and most importantly
terrorists, into one single undifferentiated category of dangers to our
economic, national and physical security.

The result of the referendum demonstrated, against all
neo-liberal expectations, that the multiple concerns crystallised around the
figure of the immigrant were able to override any considerations of economic
self-interest. The threat that Islamic terrorists might be mingled in with this
undifferentiated horde threatening to do harm to our safety and security, or
simply to undermine the stability of our way of life, allowed every migrant to
be considered as a threat to security.

The irony, of course, is that since the outcome of the
referendum the question of immigration has to a remarkable extent disappeared
from the centre of the political discourse. Instead we have witnessed attempts
to reconfigure the logic of Brexit in terms of national and economic interest,
attempts that keep running up against obstacles that testify to the impossibility
of trying to square the circle in these particular terms.

In the meantime hatred of the foreign continues to
bubble away at the fringes of the mainstream political discourse, as testified
to by a largely unreported increase in hate crimes, attacks on foreigners or
religious minorities, which have hit record levels since the referendum. The
security issue, however, is never far from the top of the agenda, with constant
pleas for more powers and more funding from the security services in the name
of the multiple and unspecified threats to our national security constantly
being thwarted in the shadows.



But it turns out that it is not only foreign nationals
who pose a threat to our national sovereignty. Recent reports have highlighted
the threat posed by British nationals returning from fighting in Syria.
Proposals have already been passed without significant comment or opposition to
strip of their right to citizenship any British national suspected of
participation in terrorist activities abroad.

Unlike the resident European citizens being held
hostage to the government’s negotiating strategy with Brussels over subjection
to jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, stripping British nationals
of their citizenship does not render these individuals foreigners, nor does it
allow us to repatriate them as citizens of a foreign state. Stripped of their
British citizenship but belonging to no other nationality, would these be the
subjects referred to by Theresa May as “citizens of nowhere”?

The British government has for some time now been
launching targeted airstrikes against their own citizens involved in fighting
on foreign soil. But what then would be the legal status of these individuals
once they find themselves repatriated to their land of birth? Will they end up
in the same legal limbo as those still languishing in Guantanamo Bay after all
these years, despite being convicted of no crime?

Under the front-page headline “Terror Alert on Jihadi
Children”, the London Evening Standard recently published an exclusive
interview with Commander Dean Haden, the head of the London Metropolitan
counter-terrorism command. He highlighted the dangers not just of known
fighters returning from Syria but also of the children born of British
nationals in Syria.

He revealed that police are now carrying out DNA tests
on any children being brought into Britain having been born abroad. This, he
says, is in order to “establish their identity and to determine whether they
have the right to live here. If a mother turns up with a stateless child born
in Syria we need to be satisfied that that child actually belongs to that

Here he refers to recent comments apparently made by
his German counterpart, Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s domestic
intelligence agency, who has apparently asserted: “We have to consider that
these children could be living time-bombs. There is a danger that these
children come back brainwashed with a mission to carry out attacks.”

Are we to simply dismiss these concerns as the florid fantasies
of the operatives of the security state? Or is it here that we are close to
grasping something of the real at stake, the point at which the stranger inside
us becomes truly alien, posing an explosive threat to the integrity of the
social body?










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