IN MEMORIAM. Zygmunt Bauman: The Migration Panic And Its (Mis)uses



Zygmunt Bauman. 17.12.2015

TV news, newspaper headlines, political speeches and tweets used to deliver foci and outlets for public anxieties and fears are currently overflowing with references to the “migration crisis” – ostensibly overwhelming Europe and portending the collapse and demise of the way of life we know, practice and cherish. That crisis is at present a sort of politically correct codename for the current phase of the perpetual battle waged by opinion makers for the conquest and subordination of human minds and feelings. The impact of the news broadcast from that battlefield now comes close to causing a veritable “moral panic” (by the commonly accepted definition of that phenomenon as recorded by Wikipedia: “a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society.”)

When I write these words, another tragedy – one of callous unconcern and moral blindness – lies waiting to strike. Signs pile up of public opinion in cahoots with the ratings-covetous media gradually yet relentlessly approaching the point of a “refugee tragedy fatigue”. Drowned children, hastily erected walls, barbed wire fences, overcrowded concentration camps (“reception centres”) and governments vying in adding insults to the injuries of exile, narrow escape and nerve-racking perils of the voyage to safety by treating the migrants as hot potatoes – all such moral outrages are less and less news and ever more seldom “in the news”. Alas, the fate of shocks is their turning into the dull routine of normality – and of moral panics spending themselves and vanishing from view and from consciences wrapped in the veil of oblivion. Who remembers now the Afghan refugees seeking asylum in Australia, hurling themselves against barbed-wire fences in Woomera or confined to the large detention camps built by the Australian government on Nauru and Christmas Island “to prevent them from entering its territorial waters”? Or the dozens of Sudanese exiles killed by the police in the centre of Cairo “after having been deprived of their rights by the UN High Commission for Refugees”? (See here).

Massive migration is by no means a novel phenomenon; it accompanied the modern era from its very beginning (though time and again modifying, and occasionally reversing, its directions) – as our “modern way of life” includes the production of “redundant people” (locally “inutile” – excessive and unemployable – owing to economic progress, or locally intolerable – rejected in the effect of unrest, conflicts and strife caused by social/political transformations and subsequent power struggles). On top of that, however, we now bear the consequences of the profound, and seemingly prospectless destabilization of the Middle-Eastern area in the aftermath of miscalculated, foolishly myopic and admittedly abortive policies and military ventures of Western powers.

The factors behind the current mass movements at the points of departure are twofold; but so is their impact at the points of arrival and the reactions of the receiving countries. In the “developed” parts of the globe, in which both economic migrants and the refugees seek shelter, business interests covet and welcome the influx of cheap labour and profit-promising skills (as Dominic Casciani juicily summed it up: “British employers have become savvy at how to get cheap foreign workers – with employment agencies working hard on the continent to identify and sign up foreign labour”); for the bulk of the population, already haunted by the existential frailty and precariousness of their social standing and prospects, that influx signals however yet more competition on the labour market, deeper uncertainty and falling chances of improvement: a politically explosive state of mind, with politicians veering awkwardly between incompatible desires to gratify their capital-holding masters and placate the fears of their electors.

All in all, as things stand now and promise to be for a long time to come, mass migration is unlikely to grind to a halt; neither for the lack of prompting nor for the rising ingenuity of attempts to stop it. As Robert Winder wittily remarked in the preface to the second edition of his book Bloody Foreigners – “We can park our chair on the beach as often as we please, and cry at the oncoming waves, but the tide will not listen, nor the sea retreat”. Building walls in order to stop migrants short of “our own backyards” comes ridiculously close to the story of the ancient philosopher Diogenes rolling to and from the barrel in which he lived over the streets of his native Sinope. Asked for the reasons for his strange behaviour, he answered that seeing his neighbours being busy barricading their doors and sharpening their swords, he also wished to contribute to the defence of the city against being conquered by the Macedonian troops of Alexander.

The policy of mutual separation leads nowhere but onto the wasteland of mutual mistrust, estrangement and aggravation.

What has however happened most recently, in the last few years, is an enormous leap in the numbers added by refugees and asylum seekers to the total volume of migrants knocking on the doors of Europe; that leap was caused by the rising number of “failing” or rather failed states or – for all intents and purposes – stateless and thus also lawless territories, stages for interminable tribal and sectarian wars, mass murders and round-the-clock banditry. To a large extent, this is the collateral damage done by the fatally misjudged, ill-starred and calamitous military expeditions to Afghanistan and Iraq, ending in the replacing of dictatorial regimes with the open-all-hours theatre of unruliness and frenzy of violence, aided and abetted by the global arms trade, unleashed from any control and beefed up by the profit-greedy weapons industry with the tacit (though all too often proudly displayed in public at international arms fairs) support of governments greedy for increased GNP. The flood of the refugees pushed by the rule of arbitrary violence to abandon their homes and cherished possessions, of people seeking shelter from the killing fields, topped the steady flow of the so called “economic migrants”, pulled by the all too human wish to move from barren soil to where the grass is green: from impoverished lands of no prospects, to dreamlands rich in opportunities. Of that steady stream of people seeking condition of decent living standards (a stream flowing steadily since the beginning of humanity, and only accelerated by the modern industry of redundant people and wasted lives), Paul Collier has the following to say (in Exodus):

The first fact is that the income gap between poor countries and rich ones is grotesquely wide and the global growth process will leave it wide for several decades. The second is that migration will not significantly narrow this gap because the feedback mechanisms are too weak. The third is that as migration continues, the diasporas will continue to accumulate for some decades. Thus, the income gap will persist, while the facilitator for migration will increase. The implication is that migration from poor countries to rich is set to accelerate. For the foreseeable future, international migration will not reach equilibrium: we have been observing the beginnings of disequilibrium of epic proportions.

Between 1960 and 2000, as Collier calculates (having available only the statistics up to 2000) “what took off, from under 20 million to over 60 million, was migration from poor countries to rich ones. Further, the increase accelerated decade by decade (…) It is a reasonable presumption that 2000 continued this acceleration”. Left to its own logic and momentum, we may say, the population of poor and rich countries would behave like the liquid in corresponding vessels. The number of immigrants is bound to carry on towards equilibrating, until the levels of well-being even up in both “developed” and “developing(?)” sectors of the globalized planet. Such a result will, in all probability, however, require many decades to be reached – even barring the unanticipated turns of historical fate.

A Never-ending Story

Refugees from the bestiality of wars and despotisms or the savagery of famished and prospectless existence have knocked on other people’s door since the beginnings of modern times. For people behind those doors they were always, as they are now, strangers. Strangers tend to cause anxiety precisely because of being “strange” – so fearsomely unpredictable, unlike the people with whom we daily interact and from whom we believe we know what to expect; for all we know, the influx of strangers might destroy the things we cherish and intend to maim or wipe out our consolingly familiar way we life. Those people with whom we are used to cohabit in our neighbourhoods, on city streets or in work places, we divide ordinarily into either friends or enemies, welcome or merely tolerated; but to whatever category we assign them, we know well how to behave towards them and how to conduct our interactions. Of strangers however we know much too little to be able to read properly their gambits and compose our responses; to guess what their intentions might be and what will they do next. And ignorance of how to carry on, how to deal with a situation not of our doing and not under our control, is a major cause of anxiety and fear.

These are, we might say, universal and extemporal problems with “strangers in our midst” – appearing at all times and haunting all sectors of the population with more or less similar intensity and in more or less similar measure. Densely populated urban areas inevitably generate the contradictory impulses of “mixophilia” (attraction to variegated, heteronymous surroundings auguring unknown and unexplored experiences and for that reason promising pleasures of adventure and discovery), and “mixophobia” (fear of the unmanageable volume of the unknown, untameable, off-putting and uncontrollable). The first impulse is the city life’s main attraction – the second being, on the contrary, its most awesome bane, especially in the eyes of the less fortunate and resourceful, who – unlike the rich and privileged, capable of buying themselves into “gated communities” to insulate themsleves from the discomforting, perplexing, and time and again terrifying turmoil and brouhaha of crowded city streets – lack the capacity to cut themselves off from the innumerable traps and ambushes scattered all over the heterogeneous, and all too often unfriendly, distrustful and hostile urban environment to whose hidden dangers they are doomed to remain exposed for life. As Alberto Nardelli informs us:

Nearly 40% of Europeans cite immigration as the issue of most concern facing the EU – more than any other issue. Only a year ago, less than 25% of people said the same. One in two of the British public mention immigration as among the most important issues facing the country.

In our increasingly deregulated, multi-centred, out-of-joint world, this permanent ambivalence of urban life is not, however, the only reason to be made uneasy and feel fightened by the sight of homeless newcomers, to arouse enmity towards them, to invite violence – and also use, misuse or abuse the migrants’ all too visible destitute, woeful and powerless plight. One can name two extra impulses to do so, added by the peculiar traits of our post-deregulation mode of life and cohabitation; factors apparently quite distinct from each other and so predominantly affecting different categories of people. Each of the two intensifies the resentment and pugnacity toward immigrants – but in different sectors of the native population.



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