Migrants are politically mute

Borders are the foundation of political entities; they not only separate but also link the peoples.

Ivaylo Ditchev
10 December 2015

Ivaylo Ditchev talks cultural triggers and consequences of mass migration with Wojciech Przybylski

We usually discern the geopolitical and economic causes of mass migration. Are there any cultural changes that made it possible on this scale?

People are less attached to the places, religions and cultures in which they were brought up. The theatre of group identities is still performed by some “righteous” parties and religious organizations, but in general we are becoming more and more singular. The contemporary individual has a culture instead of being a culture. Culture has become a possession, like a car or a music piece, and it follows you wherever you go. That is why we can choose places more easily, as if we lived in a marketplace of belonging.

This has been by far the easiest in the European Union, which declares the freedom of movement and of goods and peoples as one of its founding principles. Choice is a crucial part of our modern culture. When you choose a particular place to live, perhaps because the climate is nicer there, as well as some political and economic conditions, you inevitably influence politics. And politics has been, until now, linked to territory.

In the past, there was a fatal sense of belonging to the soil where ones ancestors were buried. People considered borders something to defend and die for. Today we all choose identities from a market of belongings, and politics has become a matter of individual consumer choice. Politicians became managers of the flows, luring desirable populations, for example a creative class, to the city.

Should we consider the origin, background and identity of newcomers? 

This is the main issue. Extreme right parties in Bulgaria want to attract ethnic Bulgarians from Bessarabia or Macedonia. But those people are not interested in coming to Bulgaria. Rather they want to go to more economically prosperous places. Others cry, “we don’t want Muslims; we want Christians.” And finally, every government wants rich and educated people. Many places in the world, e.g. Bulgaria or the United States, would happily grant citizenship to people who can invest more in the country. This is the reason why we have politics of a different type now. States have become enterprises, which somehow manage these flows of people, and citizens become consumers of the services provided by the state.

Is this change of politics a good or a bad thing?

I have grown up in a different world, so this new situation makes me a bit uneasy.

But there is no way back. I do not see any. If we go back, we need to consider again dying for the motherland, and this seems counterintuitive bearing in mind the levels of violence in society today.

One of the things that has happened is that the modern world was pacified by trade and globalization, among other factors. Of course, this does not mean there are no wars. But wars nowadays are considered illegitimate; they are not a natural part of the system. You cannot imagine establishing a new sovereignty through war today, thus the scandal around the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Before, for thousands of years, war was the ultimate argument regarding sovereignty and borders.

We cannot go back, but we need to consider the trap of accomplished desire, of comfort, we have fallen into. Liberty is not only a good thing; it can also be a bad thing. Social scientist Albert Hirschman compared Eastern Germany and The People’s Republic of Poland in his research about the reasons that explain the lack of resistance in Eastern Germany. His argument was that people in Eastern Germany could leave the country, and the government was even paid by Western Germany, using a complex price list. So people who were dissatisfied, left. And the situation calmed down. Whereas, in Poland, there was no second Polish state to emigrate to, people had to stay, and wanting to improve their condition, they fought. The easier it is to leave, the less motivation you have to voice opposition; in fact Hischman takes this model from consumer behavior – you leave the shop where they do not serve you, and you go to another.

There are five million people leaving Syria now which means that we have five million fewer citizens who would create a normal, democratic state in the near future. This is alarming. Today’s citizen-consumer, someone who is shopping for a better, more liveable place, is pragmatic and does not have that much sentiment for the ideals of democracy and solidarity.

Of course there is war and the European Community should help, but war is also an occasion for a great part of these people to leave and look for a better life. Under communism the majority of those “fleeing to the West,” were not political dissidents and only presented themselves as such in order to be able to choose a better shop, sorry, citizenship. But then, sending them back home would have meant sending them to prison as traitors of the motherland.

Unfortunately, a migrant is more docile. Bulgarian migrants in Germany rarely participate in collective movements, or strikes. They are not interested in politics. Of course they have more important questions to settle: finding an apartment and a job. But their disinterest significantly lowers overall citizenship standards. Mass migration lowers citizenship standards because migrants are more submissive due to their precarious condition.

Let me give an example: you wait for a document permitting you to stay legally in the country. During this waiting time you don’t want to be noticed. You always have your ticket when you ride the metro, because – in your opinion – even a minor offence can attract the negative attention of the authorities. Therefore you strive to be invisible. You don’t speak, you don’t have a voice, as psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva suggested. The migrant experience, the period of being mute translates to a time with no voice, with no claim to rights. Mass mobility, in this sense, might be seen as a big machine to produce submission.

Was the Schengen area, a free-movement area in Europe, a mistake?

Schengen is a mistake just as euro was a mistake: creating a common currency without a central Ministry of Finance is akin to establishing a common area of free movement without a central Ministry of Internal Affairs and common border control. The result, either adopt common institutions, or Schengen falls apart. Unfortunately federalist ideas are not fashionable today and only catastrophes may make us move forwards.

We are also on a leash of technology.

Modern technologies have created much more serious border control than the physical ones did. The population is constantly being supervised, but this control is often implicit; one is hidden among the endless streams of data, but if they want to, they can find you. We saw this on September 11th; the information was all there, but there was no human capacity to analyse it. For the moment machines, still, cannot deal with singular, illogical events. Social control is not obsolete; the problem is whether you can have it in a society on the move, to the levels we were talking about.

So you suggest we should keep borders, but have greater citizen’s control over them?

Borders are not bad, they protect. They are the foundation of political entities; they not only separate but also link the peoples. French philosopher Étienne Balibar said that “we cannot abolish borders; we should democratize them.” We should make the borders a matter of public debate and decide where borders should be, what we want them to be. For instance: should we be controlled by our telephone provider? There has been no public discussion about it. And I am not sure that most of the people would be against it. They can be convinced such control is permissible for a greater good, for instance to fight against the mafia. However, this issue should not be decided arbitrarily by the ones in power, but by the citizens. When you build a house, you decide whether to put up a fence or not.

In the Czech Republic some eighty percent of the population was against admitting migrants. This popular attitude may go against the state interest, and, therefore, against the interest of its citizens.

Let’s see what happens when a country closes its borders. The trade is stalled, the movement of people is on hold, the country is entering economic crisis. Perhaps people should learn this painful lesson, and then decide again. The small nations of Central and Eastern Europe take global exchange for granted. Cut them off for a while from the world and watch what happens. Greeks boasted that the Russians and Chinese would save them. Again this idea allows you to choose the better provider.

Regarding the borders, public discussion means that you take into consideration the positive but also the negative sides of the argument. There is a famous description by Aristotle of an ideal polis in “Politics.” The ideal polis, he says, should be a place that is easy to leave but difficult to get in to. It should be difficult for the enemies to get into the city, but it should be easy for the citizens to get out. So everybody has a little bit of an asymmetrical fantasy about their living space: I want to go out, to do tourism, work abroad, but I don’t want the others to come. In this sort of discussion, people should be put in front of different possibilities and different consequences.

What happens if we close the borders? What if Bulgaria brings back the communist border? Let us give it a try for a year if they want. For a month.

Is it the revenge of geography?

Geography has always been there. Some say that the rise of global transportation and communication technology has abolished geography. But it matters. Inequality is ever more geographically based. Just compare how much you would earn for doing the same job, say sweeping streets, in Zurich and Karachi.

Geographical determinism has become a new form of inequality. We fight inequalities that stem from race or our family background, but those based in geography seem natural. Just stay where you are, you are naturally adapted to this climate, to this dictatorship.

Ivaylo Ditchev is professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University.

The interview was published in Visegrad Insight “Border Anxiety” issue 2 (8) 2015.

BUY