‘The will of the people’ – the slogan to silence all debate

After the attacks in Westminster this week, Theresa May mentioned in her aftermath speech that the attacker ‘tried to silence our democracy’. Well, in fact, it does not need a terrorist act to do so, as British democracy has been silenced in much more subtle ways since the ill-advised decision of one of its most incompetent Prime Ministers in recent times to hold a referendum in order to quieten unrest in his own party, which he could never fully control, and threats from UKIP, who almost ironically on the day when the EU celebrated its 60ths birthday lost its last MP.

The referendum was thus not called based on popular demand for it or ‘the will of the people’. It was subsequently won on false propaganda and claims that the EU is behind any unpopular UK policy measure, a majority of which have in fact been purely UK government decisions – but who cares about facts these days? Maybe to conceal the fact that no clear plan for the bright future promised by the new PM exists, who herself is not democratically elected in a real sense but let’s leave this aside for the moment, the phrase ‘the will of the people’ has become the ultimate weapon to shut up those who want an open debate, a say, a democratic process to implement a result that should be read as an ill-advised snapshot at a particular moment in time.

Let us remember: David Cameron made a ‘promise’ to hold this referendum, at a time when he was in a coalition government with the Lib Dems, and it never looked likely that the Tory party would win the overall majority that it subsequently did win in the next general election – thus he probably never expected to be called up on his gambit. But so he was, and he probably also did not expect that his mate or non mate Boris would come down on the other side of the fence – but as with all white-male-elite networks, whatever bad blood was spilled (mainly by shooting pheasants?), it was not bad enough not to team up in a fancy New York restaurant again recently – one making money out of his political ineptitude on a speaking tour, the other on some foreign ministry engagement.

A referendum that was non-binding then became what bound MPs, whatever their personal conviction on the topic – and after all, a majority of MPs is said to be against Brexit, but of course they would not dare defy ‘the will of the people’. Wait a minute – was Britain until recently not a parliamentary democracy, where ‘the people’ delegate the deliberations of important decisions to their MPs? And now suddenly, those MPs, elected not because they campaigned for Brexit but on different grounds, are forced into a straightjacket because otherwise they would betray ‘the will of the people’? Quite a few countries in the world have regular referenda on all sorts to decisions, it is a core part of the way their democracy works – most exemplary in Switzerland for example. But not only are citizens in those countries usually well informed about what they vote on, as there is a legal obligation to provide factual information. In addition, usually some mechanisms exist to arrive at a qualified majority, so barmy ideas that may do more harm than good have little chance to become law. Not so in this referendum, where populist tactics, helped by a hapless and incompetent Labour party in opposition, carried the day – at least in two of the nations that make up the United Kingdom, but when speaking about Scotland or Northern Island the ‘will of the people’ trope is hardly ever invoked by the PM and her entourage.

Instead, the current PM does not miss an opportunity to point to the UK as the most successful political union ever – failing to remember that parts of it were built on brutal colonial oppression, unlike the EU, whatever its faults, one might add. At the Unite for Europe March in London today, one protester stated that he was born with European citizenship and how dare one wanted to take that away from him. The answer of the Tory press, as always, is how dare the protesters defy ‘the will of the people’, but that they can shout as much as they like, they will not succeed. When the House of Lord –yes, maybe something of an anachronisms in this day and age, but part of the quirky way in which British democracy has worked rather well for decades – tried to at least put some common sense into the EU bill, not least in aiming to enforce a clear role for parliament – it too in the end bowed to ‘the will of the people’.

It is astonishing and frightening to watch the speed with which old institutions unravel and bow to the dictatorship of a PM who seems to think little of parliament but regards it as rather obsolete, as a force that weakens her hand in any negotiations – negotiations based already on parameters that were not on the table in the referendum, when ‘the people spoke’. If I were British, I would be very worried. Luckily for me, as a European citizen I can walk away from the mayhem any time. What comes to mind when looking at the present moment in UK politics is a painting by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus or the Angel of History, and the words the philosopher Walter Benjamin write about that painting:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 1973:259

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The suppliant women and the perennial question: who will provide asylum and stand up for moral values?

A group of women form the shape of a boat – one of those boats we are used to see in media pictures these days, unseaworthy but still trying to cross the Mediterranean from Lybia or other North African countries to Italy, or from Turkey to Greece, and too full of people. Like the boat that was once carrying Aylan Kurdi and the many others who perished like him. The women here are a group of multi-ethnic teenagers and young adults from Greater Manchester, waving poles with a white flag and wrapping black scarves around their bodies – to symbolise both, their hope for peace and asylum and their desperation if those are not granted (the scarves can be made into hoses to hang themselves).

The scene is the stage of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and the women are part of a modern interpretation of one of the world’s oldest plays, written by Aeschylus in Ancient Greece around 2500 years ago.

The women as a collective and on their own make their case for asylum – they have escaped forced marriage to their cousins in the land of Egypt and taken refuge in the temple of Argos, accompanied by their father who also pleads on their behalf to the king of Argos, Pelasgus. Pelasgus is torn between his beliefs of what is right, his fear of the Gods, and the fact that if he lets the women stay, war with their Egyptian cousins who are bound to want them back will follow. The women argue, plead, threaten suicide and claim their rights, and ultimately convince Pelasgus. But he will not take the decision by himself – this is ancient Greece after all, the birthplace of democracy – it is up to the people (well, in reality the men) of Argos to do so in a vote. What Pelasgus does, though, is that in the way he narrates the choice to be made to the citizens of Argos, he ensures the vote will go in favour of granting the women asylum.

When the Egyptian men who want to forcefully claim the women back as their property arrive on Argos’ shores, the brave people of Argos defy them and stand by their vote to grant asylum. They send the invaders back – with words only this time but the Egyptians are bound to return and wage war – in fact, the suppliant women is part of a trilogy whose other two parts are lost, thus we don’t know how it all ends. This first play ends in a cliff-hanger: With an encounter between the suppliant women and the people of Argos that reveals asylum was granted on the understanding that the women eventually live the normal lives of the citizen of Argos – which includes getting married, the fate they had fled from. In the Royal Exchange the women seem to have the last word with a call for social justice, but we are never sure if they are really safe according to what safety means to them.

The play is mesmerizing in the way it is being performed, and sound and movement combined are almost hypnotic – a great feat made even more remarkable by the fact that, as in Ancient Greece, all women and other members of the chorus are lay people and only three professional actors were on stage. Throughout the play there were abundant references to the here and now, to Syria and refugees, to the meanings of democracy, and to the ways in which public engagement and discourse determine peoples lives.

Looking at the cast of the young women who really were the stars of the show, it also reminded one of the things that have become great about the UK: its diversity, ethnically, culturally – in spite of the racism and prejudices that always linger in the background as well. But in so many ways, so many of us ‘foreigners’ are here because there is a feeling that at least in its major cities, the UK is a place that does really strive on openness and on embracing (rather than eliminating) differences. Thus even if only mentioned indirectly – the play can also be read as the start of an elegy for post-Brexit Britain. A Britain that might not only close its borders to those who seek refuge, but become much more inward looking and over time much less diverse, ethnically, culturally and in everyday encounters. I saw the play on the day after the House of Commons had voted down any amendments to the Brexit bill, including those that would have granted EU citizens already living here the right to stay as a matter beyond doubt. As I listened to the way in which King Pelasgus spoke about what was morally right, and in doing so convincing the people of Argos to grant asylum to the suppliant women, I was reminded of all the lost opportunities during the Brexit debates. Almost nobody made the case for Europe as a moral project, a project based on a system of core values, in public speeches to counter the simplistic and exclusionary narratives that dominated much of the debate.

In so many ways, this brilliantly staged play could not be more topical.

The Suppliant Women is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until 1 April 2017.

A new movement that started in Frankfurt and has expanded to many European cities beyond, including Bath as the thus far only UK city, PulseofEurope, takes up the call to celebrate and mobilise for the values that bind ‘us’ as European citizens together – and will hopefully have a Manchester chapter soon!

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Performing the good academic at a US conference: time to re-think what is deemed important in academia?

Here I am, at the International Studies Association (ISA) Convention in Baltimore. To be frank, I have never been a fan of those big conferences, and ISA is as big as it gets for the social sciences – almost 6000 people this year, we are told by the organisers. It is also the event one is expected to go to as a ‘political scientist’ year in year out – even if I myself, coming from an interdisciplinary department (or an interdisciplinary discipline, if that term makes any sense?) always find it rather tedious and often irritating when colleagues start a sentence with the phrase ‘as a political scientist/sociologist/geographer …’, as too often this then leads to boundaries that rarely advances knowledge or practice in a wider sense. And I admit, I have never been to ISA before, as I prefer more interdisciplinary – and more intimate – gatherings.

But here I am, brought here by a project located at the University of Manchester on Making Peacekeeping Data Work for the International Community, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK (grant number ES/L007479/1). Professionally, it all worked out fine. I was part of an interesting panel with the title Revisiting the Dimensions of Human Rights and Security: Insights from Foundational Principles and Cases and we had a brilliant discussant who had read and thought about all our contributions, academic practice at its best. I have met colleagues I did not see for a long time, and the panels I attended were all of high quality and provided much food for thought. I even had the pleasure to bump into a former PhD student at our department in Manchester, who not only presented his own new work but had organised a fascinating panel on post-development. This I have always regarded as the greatest privilege in my work as an academic and source of much enjoyment: to see past students blossom as researchers (or in whatever career they chose).

The city of Baltimore was showing itself from its nicest side, with brilliant sunshine and early spring warmth. But a feeling of unease has not left me throughout the conference with its rather grande title Understanding Change in World Politics, probably based on a diffuse feeling that in fact much of the event was far removed from the politics of everyday life here. The conference was located near downtown Baltimore, and when looking out of the window of my 8th floor room in one of the conference hotels, I could see the redeveloped harbour area glittering in the near distance.

As I am no fan of hotel food, I strolled around before breakfast on my first day to find an alternative. Not even two blocks from my rather posh conference hotel I entered a quite different world. Hardly anybody on the street was white; many shops are run down and many buildings boarded up. I entered a food market and bought a very delicious fresh fruit salad for breakfast – and again, when I looked around hardly any white person could be seen. Maybe it has become politically incorrect to speak about race or one’s skin colour – but that does not mean there are no deep divides exactly along those lines. Those dynamics were repeated when I boarded one of the great things about Baltimore, the free buses that on four routes cover most of the places where any visitor might wish to go. I think it is a great idea, exactly for such visitors, and potential attractions along its line are duly pointed put on the bus timetable map. But there were no visitors on this bus (apart form me on different occasions). Passengers again were mostly black, and I assume use this free service to get around town. Which is good in itself, as is the fact that this service exists (today in the morning news I heard the radical cut-back of the state is a key objective of the Trump presidency, thus how long any free services will exist might be open to question). Anybody I know from the conference would either walk when near enough, or get the service of one of the taxi-app companies. When asking people on the bus, who are all friendly and talkative, if they know anything about the ISA conventions, the answer is no, perhaps not unexpectedly (even if one bus route stops straight outside the convention centre).

Back at the conference, much talk is about counter-narratives, bottom-up, the local – and that of course is good in itself, but at the same time seems a rather strange performance of academic knowledge production, far removed from any ‘local’ (in itself a contentious term). What to do about all this, and the expectations of what makes a ‘good’ academic in an increasingly competitive environment? Expectations that include not only publishing in certain journals but also being ‘internationally known’, and the latter still mostly means having attended conferences in the US and been recommended by US academics, however anachronistic this may sound to many. I have no good answers and perhaps was almost quite lucky personally, having come into academia late and never with the ambition to rise up some pre-determined career ladder – I had a good professional life before academia and feel I can step away at any time, a fact that provides me with considerable freedom. My social highlight of the conference was perhaps a dinner with a group of colleagues who I had last met at an academic event in Copenhagen a while ago. That event was small in scale but brought together key people in the field, and thus allowed for deep reflections on what the key issue were. I have yet to be convinced ISA did do so in the same way.

Additional Information: I presented a paper entitled Dimensions of UN human rights prioritisation as a hindrance to conflict resolution and political engagement in the Horn of Africa, using the examples of Sudan (Darfur) and Eritrea. The paper was partly developed together with my colleague Allard Duursma. Feel free to email me for a copy of the presentation.


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Full steam ahead for Brexit – A personal elegy for a cosmopolitanism that perhaps never was

Now it is almost official, after 461 to 89 MPs backed the government’s Article 50 Bill yesterday: Brexit will happen probably sooner than many expected, and more authoritarian and undemocratic than ever thought possible by those who believe in due democratic process.

Photo: Stefan Boness, www.iponphoto.com

Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

Brexit will in essence be negotiated by a Prime Minister not even elected by ‘the people’ in a real sense, ‘the people’ we hear so much about these days, and whose will the PM now proclaims to carry out. One can have different views on what democracy is, and how democratic a referendum, fought on a single issue and based on false facts (or ‘post-truth’), as later frankly admitted by those who propagated them, really is – and I am among those critical of such versions of democracy.

A remain-politician, before the first vote on Article 50 in parliament, explained why he would vote with the bill in the following terms: If for example a vote would be held after a popular referendum that called for re-instating the death penalty, he would vote no – and contradict the ‘will of the people’ – because this was a moral issue. Brexit, however, was a political issue, and thus the ‘will of the people’ needed to be respected, whatever his own views – and he still believed Brexit in its current forms was a big mistake. I am sceptical about this distinction between a political and a moral issue – and strongly disagree with the notion that Brexit is only or even mainly a political issue that has no moral repercussions – not least because I (as an EU academic) am directly affected by the ethical and moral beliefs that are behind the Brexit momentum.

As pointed out in the parliamentary debate during the first vote on Brexit last week– the government clearly decided to forge a deal around anti-immigration policies, and give scant regard to economic or other consequences (like those for example for the higher education sector, one of Britain’s most successful and valuable national assets, the latter due to its openness to talent from all over the world). This focus on anti-immigration has clearly a profound ethical and moral dimension, but there is surprisingly little debate about that, and even less debate on the emotional side of it. From an ethical point of view, one may question how democratic it is not to have given those ultimately deeply affected by it a vote in the referendum in the first place – those of us who have lived and worked in the UK for decades and helped it become what it is today. But there is another emotional dimension that is highly overlooked: how does Brexit and the way it is being debated and implemented make us feel? Will the term ‘Brexit-depression’ enter the vocabulary of counselling services all over the UK? Or will most of us continue to keep our heads down, get on with it, or apply for residency that might not be granted, as regardless of existing laws there appears to be a tendency to make anybody going down that route feel as unwelcome as possible. My colleague Colin Talbot has written in a much publicised blog on these personal dimensions, mainly in relation to those who applied for permanent residency and were unlawfully rejected. His blog is largely based on responses gathered from EU academics most of whom, a telling sign, wanted to remain anonymous – for fear of otherwise jeopardizing their future after Brexit. But among most of us, whether we decide to leave (or actually have already left), apply for permanent residency or citizenship, or just wait and see, the Brexit debate, the vote and its aftermath triggered deep emotional responses that many of us feel nobody wants to hear.

Shorty after the referendum, an academic colleague (from a different university) told me he actually voted Brexit. He then continued to say that he would stand by his decision (and yes, there are good reasons to critique and possibly leave the EU) – but what really took him aback was how rejected and hurt many of his European colleagues felt in the aftermath. My immediate reaction was something like ‘I am sorry, but as an intelligent person – how did you think we would feel?’ Subsequently and with each throw of the dice, this feeling of hurt combined with feeling increasingly depressed has increased, and more often than not I have asked myself what I am still doing here (as have others I debated this with). I am lucky in many ways, not only working at in institution that tries its best to reassure us and make tangible effort to secure our right to be here. I also have a number of  (British) colleagues who not only share my feelings of depression but do have an understanding of how it might feel to be put in this situation of limbo. But more generally, also among academic colleagues, talk is mostly about highly skilled visas that will make it alright for us, and advise usually centres on the technicalities of how to secure status and ways to stay. Few actually ask questions like ‘how do you feel about Brexit’, ‘how does it affect your work, your morale’? ‘how does it affect your well-being, your daily life’?

If you would ask me, I would give an answer along the following lines: After the first shock, I assumed some common sense would prevail, that there was scope for a solution that upheld key achievements of project Europe, whatever its flaws (achievements that were so astonishingly absent in the Brexit campaign). But as dynamics went one, at each turn the hope for such an outcome was dented. Some sort of climax in this feeling of rejection came yesterday, when Harriet Harman’s Amendment to the government’s Article 50 Bill (thank you, Harriet) that would have guaranteed the rights of EU nationals already resident in Britain was rejected by 332 to 290 votes. It is official now, we have become a commodity to be used as a bargaining chip in future EU negotiations – and the hurt many of us feel is of no concern to anybody. I suppose I am lucky in many ways, as for me it is easier to simply turn my back and leave than for many of my colleagues and friends whose personal and professional arrangements are much more complex and leave them with less choice.

Quite a few commentaries of late have discussed similarities between our recent times and the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. This might be overblown but then it might not, as every large upheaval starts with small steps, steps that in themselves seem of minor relevance. In a conversation with an Italian colleague yesterday, before the parliamentary vote, he told me he was reminded of part of his family history. In Italy in the 1920s one of his relatives was politely asked to join the National Fascist Party and politely refused. He was asked again on various subsequent occasions and continued to refuse, and eventually had to flee the country, to return only many years later when Italy’s fascist dictatorship had ended.

I have asked myself many times since the Brexit debate and referendum why so many of us, including myself, did not see this coming – this growing rise of populism, denunciation of the unfamiliar, often demagogic-based politics. Frankly and perhaps naively, I never thought political developments would determine one day where I could live and how I could lead my life – these times seemed to be over for those lucky enough to be European citizens at least. I should have known better – not only because coming from West-Berlin, I saw a whole country implode and collapse in now time at my doorstep, literally.

But I am also part of a global elite – not the 1% in a strict sense, but those who based on their nationality and skin colour had (thus far) the chance to live a life of unprecedented freedom, that many can only dream of. This was brought home to me in another conversation yesterday with a black colleague from an African country, who, ironically, has obtained British citizenship (thus formally has many more rights than myself in the UK). He told me that one of his children now does some sports in a wealthy suburb of Manchester, a suburb he never really visited before, thus he usually spends time there while waiting for the sports-class to finish. It is a suburb where one does not see many people of colour on the streets (as I can attest to as I live there). Sometimes he browses through the charity shops, and is well aware that as soon as he enters, one of the people working there keeps close taps on him, suspiciously watching his every movement. Not too obvious, trying to disguise it through some re-arranging activity in the shop. ‘They probably think I am some refugee trying to steal something’ he says with good humour. And some of ‘the older women in there, you can see them clutching their handbags closely to their chest’. I am horrified by this story. ‘I am used to it’, my colleague says, ‘and it has stopped bothering me’. But it should not stop bothering us, I think. And I realise, the cosmopolitan city I imagined myself to live in was always a chimera to some extent, underpinned by an underbelly of nationalist and racist everyday practices. This puts my post-Brexit depression into wider perspective, but it does not make me feel any better.

Possibility of future research: In response to his blog on Brexit and EU academics, Colin Talbot has been getting quite a lot of emails – often long, detailed, explanations of their experiences – from our EU27 academic colleagues in the UK affected by Brexit. He has asked if there is someone who specialises in migration issues at the qualitative, individual experience, level who would be interested in following this up as a research project? If intersted please either contact Cathy Wilock at cathy.wilcock@manchester.ac.uk at the Manchester Migration Lab,  or contact Colin at colin.talbot@manchester.ac.uk

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The inequality circus: another year, another set of misleading numbers

No doubt, global inequalities are a serious issue, and they are getting worse in many ways (even if not exclusively so). And, Oxfam seems to have decided a long time ago, it always pays to put a sensationalist twist backed up by numbers on things. Of course Oxfam is not alone here in this area of so-called ‘post-truth’ politics. Remember the Brexit campaign slogan that suggested the UK would send £350m a week to Brussels – and that this sum could in future be invested into the NHS? It later turned out, the ‘Brexiteers’ knew very well this claim was wrong but found it a useful propaganda devise, as it ‘got people talking’, and in this case voting.

The same attempt to grab attention by whatever means seems true for the now yearly ritual of an Oxfam report released shortly before the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. A couple of years ago, the report made headlines with the claim that 85 people owned as much as the poorest half of the world’s population, this then dropped to 80 and subsequently to 62 people in 2016. This year it dropped to eight people, all named and shamed in the newest Oxfam report. Certainly a number that will get people talking, this new catchphrase that the world’s eight richest billionaires have as much wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest.

For quite some time the way Oxfam comes up with its calculations – which are based on data from Forbes and the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report – have been heavily critiqued (some would say by people who have no interest in addressing the underlining problems of global inequalities, but I think that is a rather cheap shot). And indeed the numbers are quite controversial and often misleading, not least in terms of what is actually being measured and compared as wealth. Then there are those who point out that many of these super-rich in fact give vast percentages of their fortunes away to good causes. In doing so, they show civic responsibility and help make the world a better place in ways party politics can or does not do – while at the same time, one should say avoiding tax payments. I do not support this argument in any way as I have argued elsewhere, as it undermines democracy and any form of political accountability to recruit those who became rich through a system based on global exploitation and tax avoidance to fix the system. But does this justify the hyperbole in the way the state of global inequalities is being represented by Oxfam and the like?

Then there are those who think the controversy over data calculations does not really matter, as the important message is that inequality has reached highly unsustainable levels, and thus the yearly ritual of a new Oxfam catch-phrase headline is a welcome reminder of that state of affairs. Fair point in some ways, as argued thoughtfully by my colleague Rory Horner in a wider piece that reflects on a different economy.

But I beg to differ: language does matter, and so does hyperbole, and populism from the left or for a supposedly good cause is as destructive as populism form the right, in my book. It does destroy trust and the propensity to understand real-life problems based on facts, rather than on emotional appeals, and in doing so fosters the echo chamber of one’s own beliefs. In an interview an Oxfam spokesperson blames global inequalities for the rise in contemporary populism – but seems oblivious to the fact that the way its own message comes across is as populist and in many ways misleading.

Which begs the question, why does Oxfam continue to do this? One of its spokespeople told a German newspaper when queried about data calculations that the numbers in themselves did not matter, what was important was the scandal of inequality. But is there no other way to engage with that scandal and build a campaign around it than to use sensationalist numbers, however dodgy they may be? Of course there is, but that would be less flashy and not stick so easily, and ‘get people talking’ in the same way, presumably. Oxfam is, one should also say, by no means the only body who sees grave dangers in increasing global inequality – even publications like the Economist have issued warnings about it for some years now. Maybe, a cynic might suggest, it is the need to stand out in the crowd (and ensure its continued importance) that drives the annual Oxfam ritual? Slogans, in particular when based on imprecise facts, have hardly ever made the world a better, or indeed a more just place.

Event: The Poverty, Inequality and Growth Research Group at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, is holding a half-day workshop on ‘Global inequality/ies: the next best thing or this year’s development fad?’ with presentations by Bina Agarwal, Armando Barrientos, Diana Mitlin and Antonio Savoia, followed by an open discussion. The workshop will be held on Thursday, January 26th, from 1600 to 1730, in the Hanson Room, Humanities Bridgeford Street Building (coffee will be available from 1530).

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The personal and the political – a reflection on lost utopias and future activism on the day of remembrance for Rosa Luxemburg

The year 2017 sees the 100th anniversary of the socialist October Revolution in Russia, a revolution that in spite of all its flaws served as an inspiration to many who in the coming century believed in alternatives to global capitalism and new conceptions of solidarity.

Memorial service for Rosa Luxemburg, 15 January 2017 in Berlin. Photo: Stefan Boness, www.iponphoto.com

Memorial service for Rosa Luxemburg, 15 January 2017 in Berlin.
Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

In the 1980s, when I grew up and was politicized, many of these alternatives had at their heart the conviction that the personal is always political and vice versa, thus that how one lived was either supporting an exploitative global system, or contributing to its destruction or at least contestation, no matter how small the steps an individual might take towards the latter would be. One could live on the face of it a conventional life (even if few of us then did), but still do so in a way that challenged those conventions, some did so more radically than others, but that was fine as long as one was aware of what one was doing.

I was reminded of this past understanding of one’s role in society (that perhaps few of a younger generation can make sense of) when I read a new-year social media messages of a fellow academic. The academic in question proclaims at every opportunity how proud they are of contributing to educate a new generation in meaningful ways, in ways that may ultimately inspire students to change the world and ‘make a difference’. So far so good, even if a more cynical person may question how many of todays students who pay high fees for the privilege of attending university (at least in the UK where this colleague is based) may wish to have a well-paying career in future, rather than forgo such a career in order to make the world a better place. But leaving such cynicism aside, when I then read this colleagues new year message, proclaiming that the year 2016 was the best in their life ever, and that 2017 was looking to be even better – based on stories of complete private happiness that would do any Hollywood tearjerker proud – I found myself gasping in disbelief (which may just show my age). While it is of course entirely legitimate to withdraw into one’s own private happiness and lose sight of the world as a whole, coming from a person claiming to have a progressive agenda beyond private bliss, I found this elegy rather painful to read. After all, 2016 was the year of a number of political earthquakes that will impact all our lives, very likely in a disastrous way, including Brexit, the election of Trump as US president and the erection of borders wide and far – all making the outlook for 2017 even worse. How can for somebody who claims to be politically conscious and hopes to influence future generations the personal be seen as so detached from the political?

One of the cities that in the past stood at the forefront of making the personal political and vice versa has been Berlin – well, rather the old West Berlin one should probably say. It used to be a laboratory for those who rejected traditional careers, gender roles, and what have you, and experimented with new forms of political engagement as well as the personal lived in unconventional ways (having said that, I have friends in Manchester who did exactly the same at the same point in time, the 1980s and 1990s). Thus fittingly, one of the global initiatives concerned with economic rights, with a counter-system to the constraints global capitalism imposes not only on society but all its members, born out of the realisation of the threat of global inequalities and ecological disaster, launched a book in Berlin in January 2017 that promises to take this ‘system without a future’ to account. The book, (ironically?) named the red book (and thus far only available in German), is based on the ‘capitalism tribunal’ held in May 2016 in Vienna. It includes well-know critiques of global capitalism such as Saskia Sassen, Achille Mbembe and Ilija Trojanow among others, even though none of the three could make it to the event, nearest was Achille Mbembe stuck at Milan airport.

If one had expected – like I did perhaps naively – a proper debate about global alternatives and potential social action on how to bring change about, one would hardly believe how the evening unfolded: The event took place in a side building of a well-know Berlin Theatre, the Volksbühne am Rosa Luxemburg Platz, run for decades (since 1992) by Frank Castorf, a controversial director. One may or may not like Castorf and his way of making every serious play into a slapstick-orgy, but each theatre benefits from a change of director eventually, and to many it seemed high time to bring some new ideas into the Volksbühne. Not surprisingly, the replacement of Castorf in summer 2017 with Belgian curator Chris Dercon (from Tate Modern) has proved controversial, with critics often alleging that this amounted to a sell-out of the ‘progressive’ theatre. But one could not have foreseen the course the debate on actions to change the world and show resistance against capitalism took at the above event: It centred ultimately on the suggestion to occupy the theatre and take a stand in the dispute, against the new director. In all likelihood, some of those who propagated this course of action saw something of the personal being political enacted here – but in the way this suggestion was enacted and performed, it reminded me more of self-adulation and the celebration of one’s self-importance, maybe akin to what Chouliaraki calls ‘solidarity as irony’. I did not wait to see if the suggestion was actually carried out (it was not), as I found the whole event and its self-centredness as painful as having to read news of personal bliss while the world around falls apart.

This was even more so the case as in the history of resistance, occupying houses, literally and metaphorically, was an important weapon of the weak (or in fact not so weak). The squatter movements in former West Berlin in the 1980s, and in post-reunification East Berlin in the 1990s were important alternative spaces that allowed new forms of communal solidarity. A day after the ‘red-book’ event I was thus at the pre-book launch of a comprehensive new analysis of these movements in Berlin and beyond, Das ist unser Haus (unfortunately only in German). One of the authors was a founding member of the band that accompanied many occupations then, Ton, Steine, Scherben, who at the time were important to advance the movement through joint actions between artists, musician in this case, and political protest. Many of those creative types who now flood into Berlin because it still has, comparatively, cheap rents and an alternative vibe, may not be aware that this state of affairs is strongly connected to the squatter movements then, even if a lot of communal projects are under renewed threat from property tycoons and speculators. But the legacies of this past protest movement, a movement that combined political actions with personal lifestyles, helped shape planning in Berlin and protected important urban spaces from destruction. And while this may sound little in the grand scheme of things, initiatives like milieu-protection, that put boundaries on what private investors and speculators can do, have become mainstream politics and had some effect in the protection of alternative spaces.

My week reflecting on contemporary activism and political engagement ended on 15 January 2017, at the annual memorial gathering for Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (both of whom were murdered in Berlin on 15 January 1919) at the socialist memorial section of the cemetery in Berlin-Friedrichsfelde. Every year on that day, thousands of people leave red carnations on the gravestones of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others buried next to them. On the overarching memorial stone the inscription reminds later generations of their responsibility for a better world. On this day in January 2017, when hard Brexit and the creation of new hard borders moved a step closer, while refugees shiver in snow-covered summer tents just a few hundred kilometres from Berlin, the question about new forms of activism that correspond to the state of the world in 2017 seems to become very urgent indeed. As Rosa Luxemburg once said: Those who do not move do not notice their chains. And as I would add, once the chains are being felt, it is time to act (to be continued).

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The Manchester Migration Lab – a reflection on journeys and the language we use to categorize them

Photo: Stefan Boness www.iponphoto.com

Photo: Stefan Boness

The Faculty of Humanities at the University of Manchester at some point last year decided Manchester should become a beacon for research on migration – and made a substantial commitment to and initial investment into setting up the Manchester Migration Lab. Initially convened by Bertrand Taithe from the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) and Uma Kothari from the Global Development Institute (GDI), I replaced Uma as co-convenor this September, not least because Uma is on research leave for an extended period of time – but also because I have engaged substantively through my research, my blog and in international media as far away as Brazil with the so-called European refugee crisis over the last two years.

The Migration Lab held a first brainstorming workshop on 5 December 2016, based around four core themes: borders, journeys, agency and home (a blog and audio recordings created by Caroline Boyd can be found here). I was asked to speak to the theme journeys at the workshop, and that made me reflect on some wider themes around the Lab.

Shortly before the workshop, I had been in Berlin and visited an exhibition called Uncertain States: Artistic Strategies in States of Emergency (an exhibition worth going to if anybody happens to be in Berlin before 15 January 2017). One section exhibited a single prized possession people who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s took with them on their journey. One exhibit in this section was the original of a text written by Bertold Brecht, then in exile in Paris, in 1937. The text, in the original called Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten, in its English translation starts as follows:

About the expression emigrants

I have always found the name they gave us wrong: the emigrants. That´s what you call people that leave. But we didn´t leave out of our own free will, choosing a new country. We didn´t come to another country to stay, possibly even for ever. We had to flee. We are the exiled, the banished. And not a home but exile shall the country be that welcomed us.

The text reiterates the importance of a theme I have commented about in the past once again: terms and categories and concepts do matter profoundly. It also made me question and reflect upon why the Faculty of Humanities was so keen to have and support a ‘Migration Lab’, and how we as academics committed to social justice (or those of us who are) should relate to that agenda – at a point in time when ‘migration’ has many negative connotations (and wrong usages of the term are omnipresent). Maybe the migration lab can serve as an opportunity to alter the terms of public debate, and I certainly would hope so. Personally, I think ‘solidarity lab’ might have been a more appropriate name, as I strongly believe that at this particular juncture in history, it is of prime importance to investigate the potential for contemporary forms of solidarity and activist citizenship, in particular in relation to those who lack rights that we claim are universal – populations of refugees, migrants and others on the move.

In fact, the short talk on journeys I gave at the Migration Lab workshop did involve two types of journeys that those who undertook them would not have referred to with the term migration, in a similar way, if for different reasons, that Brecht did not feel this term was appropriate.

The first were journeys in the times of socialism, journeys that allowed rural and often disadvantaged youth from Mozambique during a six-year-journey to east Germany a brighter future. This was a journey that helped in important ways define who they became, and, in spite of many difficulties and obstacles on the way, opened new and formerly unimagined possibilities for many who took part in it (as I have explored in detail in my book Legacies of Socialist Solidarity).

Such types of journeys for youth from the Global South do not exist any longer in the post Cold War word order, or only for very few who belong to a select elite. They have been replaced with journeys of youth from the African continent not in planes, but over land and via unseaworthy boats. Like their predecessors in socialist times, they look for a better future. Thus at the outset of their journeys are aspirations towards a better future, often coupled with despair about the situation in their country of origin (as I have argued in an article on those issues among Eritreans in Tel Aviv). And while the wider world sees these population groups as ‘migrants’ or ‘infiltrators’, many of them self-identify as refugees and lay claim to that label in public protests. We are refugees the Eritrean and Sudanese stranded in Israel shout at public rallies – and the same is true for long term asylum seekers in Germany who protest against dispersal policies. They, like Brecht, see themselves as forced into making their journeys by circumstances outside their control. And who are we, those who name and categorize their journeys, to ignore how they define themselves? They do not use the term refugee in its legal sense, but as a term that best describes their lived experiences – and ultimately in using that term, what they do is lay claim to some forms of citizenship rights, not of a country, but as a member of humanity.

A ‘Migration Lab’, whatever the merits of its name, based in a country whose Prime Minister is on record for saying: If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means seems to have its work cut out – not least in terms of combatting ignorance about the fact, put extremely well in a reader’s comment in the Financial Times, that major threats to our well-being, including climate change, epidemics, terrorism ‘are not started by citizens of the world but narrow-minded people with a blind belief of their superiority’ while ‘some of the greatest minds in any society are descendants of immigrants and refugees’. A prime example of the last part of that quote are people like Bertold Brecht and all those great minds in all fields of human endeavour who were prosecuted and expelled from Germany by narrow minded people with a blind belief in their superiority more than 80 years ago – and Germany has to this day not fully recovered from that loss.

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