Trump is forcing Americans to participate in an orgy of unnecessary cruelty

Robert Reich:

Trump’s actions violate every ideal this nation has ever cherished — and we have a moral responsibility to stop it

Robert Reich: Trump is forcing Americans to participate in an orgy of unnecessary cruelty
(Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Drake)
This originally appeared on Robert Reich’s blog.

The theme that unites all of President Donald Trump’s initiatives so far is their unnecessary cruelty.

1. His new budget comes down especially hard on the poor by imposing unprecedented cuts in low-income housing, job training, food assistance, legal services, help to distressed rural communities, nutrition for new mothers and their infants, funds to keep poor families warm and even Meals on Wheels.

These cuts come at a time when more American families are in poverty than ever before, including one in five children.

Why is Trump doing this? To pay for the biggest hike in military spending since the 1980s. Yet the United States already spends more on its military than the next seven biggest military budgets combined.

2. His plan to repeal and “replace” the Affordable Care Act will cause 14 million Americans to lose their health insurance next year, and 24 million to lose it by 2026.

Why is Trump doing this? To bestow $600 billion in tax breaks over the decade to wealthy Americans. This windfall comes at a time when the rich have accumulated more wealth than at any time in the nation’s history.

The plan reduces the federal budget deficit by only $337 billion over the next ten years — a small fraction of the national debt, in exchange for an enormous amount of human hardship.

3. His ban on Syrian refugees and reduction by half in the total number of refugees admitted to the United States comes just when the world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Why is Trump doing this? The ban does little or nothing to protect Americans from terrorism. No terrorist act in the United States has been perpetrated by a Syrian or by anyone from the six nations whose citizens are now banned from traveling to the United States. You have higher odds of being struck by lightening than dying from an immigrant terrorist attack.

4. His dragnet roundup of undocumented immigrants is helter skelter and includes people who have been productive members of our society for decades, as well as young people who have been here since they were toddlers.

Why is Trump doing this? He has no compelling justification. Unemployment is down, crime is down, and we have fewer undocumented workers in the United States today than we did five years ago.

Trump is embarking on an orgy of cruelty for absolutely no reason. This is morally repugnant. It violates every ideal this nation has ever cherished. We have a moral responsibility to stop it.

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie “Inequality for All” is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at

NATO operation in Aegean heightens threat of war with Russia

Georgia's Minister of Defence Tinatin Khidasheli (L) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (R) address a NATO-Georgia Commission defense ministers meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels February 11, 2016.  REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Johannes Stern
29 February 2016

A NATO convoy under German leadership is to begin operations in the Aegean Sea in the next few days, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday.

The official goal of the mission is the complete closure of the Aegean to refugees, militarily strengthening “Fortress Europe” against refugees from the war zones in the Middle East. The dispatch of warships to the strategic Aegean Sea also heightens the risk of NATO intervention in the Syrian civil war and war with Russia.

Stoltenberg said in a press release that the goal of NATO was “the disruption of the routes used by smugglers and for illegal migration in the Aegean.” He boasted that the ships of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG 2) had already arrived in the mission area 48 hours after the decision of NATO defence ministers was taken two weeks ago. Now it was a matter of collectively finding “solutions” for the “crisis.”

By “solutions” of the refugee crisis, Stoltenberg and NATO mean the military strengthening of the Greek and Turkish coast guard and the European border protection agency Frontex in order to detect and stop refugee boats, also possibly forcing them back.

Stoltenberg said, “Our ships will provide information for the Greek and Turkish coast guard and other national authorities, allowing them to act even more effectively against illegal trafficking networks. We will also establish direct connections to European Frontex … so that it can do its ‘job’ more effectively.”

In other words, Frontex, supported by NATO warships, should conduct its notorious “push-back” operations more intensively, i.e. a refugee boat being tracked should be “towed back where it came from—for example, to Turkey”. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière demanded this last December in an interview with Die Welt. Now it is official EU and NATO policy. Stoltenberg said, “If people are rescued who have come through Turkey, they will be returned to Turkey.”

The operation comes from an initiative by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, agreed at a meeting of NATO defence ministers on 11 February. Berlin is taking over the management of the NATO alliance. In a statement last Thursday, von der Leyen praised the NATO decision “under German leadership” as being “quick and clear”. Last Friday, the German supply ship Bonn, which will lead the naval group, set off from the NATO base at Souda in Crete. On board was the German Commodore Jörg Klein, commander of SNMG 2.

With the military mission, the German government wants to “drastically and sustainably” reduce the number of refugees coming to Greece via Turkey, as de Maizière declared on the periphery of an EU meeting in Brussels. This should happen by March 7. Then a special EU summit would take place attended by Turkey.

The official goal of the Merkel government is to commit the Erdogan regime to a dirty deal on fully closing the borders for refugees and to detain refugee boats before they can even leave Turkey. As “compensation”, the German government will provide financial support to Ankara. Last week in a government statement, Merkel reaffirmed her support for a no-fly zone in Syria, a central demand of the Erdogan government and an important condition for Ankara’s military invasion of Syria.

The NATO mission in the Aegean not only entails increased support for Turkey’s war drive against the Kurds and the Syrian government, but is a direct part of the NATO war preparations against Russia.

An official NATO report indicates that the SNMG 2 force had conducted “intensive operations with the Turkish Navy” in early February. This included carrying out air defence operations, submarine war operations and live firing exercises (GUNEX). Turkish F-16 fighter jets were also involved in the exercise.

According to Klein, the aim was to develop the force’s “own abilities” and “to consolidate a team” out of the units. As well as the German flagship, the “team” that he is currently leading in the Aegean includes two heavily armed frigates, the Canadian vessel HMCS Fredericton and the Greek ship Salamis (F-455), and a Turkish warship. The SNMG 2 group is part of the NATO Response Force (NRF), the NATO rapid reaction force, which was systematically upgraded last year against Russia.

The location and organisation of the exercise alone underscore what NATO is preparing. Russia is currently the only power that is active in the region with larger naval units and warplanes, and is considered as an enemy by NATO. The Russian Air Force is supporting Syria’s Assad regime being combatted by the West, and warships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet regularly transit the Aegean between their home ports in the Crimea and Tartus in Syria, where the only Russian naval base is located in the Mediterranean Sea.

The increasing NATO presence in the Aegean heightens the risk of a direct clash between NATO and Russia. According to the Russian Defence Ministry, there was a near-collision off the Greek island of Lemnos in December, between a Turkish fishing boat and the Russian destroyer Smetliwij. Russia regarded the incident as a deliberate provocation by the Turkish Navy, and summoned the Turkish military attaché in Moscow. Since the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey on November 24, 2015, tensions between Turkey and Russia have steadily increased.

In its latest edition, news weekly Der Spiegel describes the consequences, including those unintended, of the NATO mission. It says of the growing “risk of war between Russia and Turkey”: “It is the year in which the world stands as close to a nuclear war as never before in the history of the Cold War. Provocations, red lines, which are crossed, airspace violations, a shot-down aircraft. A missile fired in error or a submarine commander who loses his nerve can trigger a world war.”

Europe at the breaking point


17 February 2016

This weekend’s Munich Security Conference, which brought together European and international officials, exposed deep and bitter divisions wracking European capitalism. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ public attack on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy in the European refugee crisis, in which Valls demanded even more vicious attacks on refugees, was among the sharpest of a whole host of conflicts that erupted.

Having dismissed Merkel’s policy as “unviable in the long run” the day before the summit, Valls said Paris was “not in favor” of her proposal to distribute throughout Europe hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing imperialist wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, on the basis of a quota system. “We need a very clear message that ‘Now, we don’t take any more refugees,’” he declared.

Valls bluntly predicted that if refugees kept fleeing to Europe, the European Union (EU) would disintegrate politically and economically. Borders would keep going up in Europe to halt them, he said, and international trade within Europe and the Schengen accords on free movement between European countries would collapse, “with economic consequences we can only imagine.”

Not content to state his opposition to Merkel, Valls sought support among right-wing nationalist European politicians hostile to her policy. He first met with Horst Seehofer, the minister-president of Bavaria, whose Christian Social Union (CSU) is an outspoken critic of Merkel’s refugee policy. Valls then lunched on Saturday with Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, who the previous day had called Berlin’s refugee policy “stupid.”

After the summit ended, as British Prime Minister David Cameron traveled to Paris to discuss with President François Hollande the terms on which Britain would remain inside the EU, Valls warned that a British exit from the EU would mean an “irreversible dislocation” of Europe.

In less than 25 years, the entire European project announced in 1992 with the passage of the Maastricht Treaty establishing the EU has begun to collapse. At that time, shortly after the Stalinist bureaucracy had dissolved the USSR as part of the restoration of capitalism across Eastern Europe, apologists for capitalism claimed that the end of the communist danger would create unity in Europe. Far from being the cradle of peace, prosperity and unity, however, the EU is proving to be the midwife of a new eruption of chauvinism, austerity and war.

The deep and fast-growing fissures splitting the EU apart confirm Leon Trotsky’s warning that it is impossible to unite Europe on a capitalist basis. “One of the basic reasons for the crisis in bourgeois society is the fact that the productive forces can no longer be reconciled with the framework of the national state,” Trotsky wrote in The Permanent Revolution. “From this follows, on the one hand, imperialist wars, on the other, the utopia of a bourgeois United States of Europe.”

The fate of millions of desperate refugees fleeing societies ravaged by decades of imperialist wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria has become the focus of intensifying geo-strategic and economic conflicts between the European powers. It is triggering clashes over borders, economic policy and conflicting interests in various parts of the world, particularly Eastern Europe, that are deeply rooted politically and historically in the bloody contradictions of European capitalism.

Anonymous German officials pointedly reminded Le Monde that they could retaliate to criticisms of German policy by objecting to the size of France’s budget deficit, which violates EU rules. With European banks facing €1 trillion in bad loans and layoffs spreading throughout the EU, Berlin could press for bone-crunching austerity from Greece to Italy to France should the sell-off on financial markets trigger an economic collapse in Europe.

The unnamed German officials added that Valls’ statement on refugees was “all the more unfriendly” in that it encouraged opposition to Berlin from Macedonia, Bulgaria and the Visegrad Group (the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia) as they met Monday in Prague. There, the six Eastern European countries, traditional allies of Berlin that are economically closely integrated with Germany, opposed Merkel’s quota proposal on refugees. Instead, they agreed to help Macedonia close its border with Greece to block the passage of refugees into the rest of Europe.

Even as NATO militarizes much of Eastern Europe in a reckless confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, the power struggle between Berlin and Paris over refugee policy and influence in Eastern Europe is another ominous sign of a political breakdown. Since Berlin launched the re-militarization of its foreign policy in 2014, the European powers have announced plans to spend hundreds of billions more on their armed forces.

Now, as before World War I, when France cemented an anti-German alliance with Russia, and World War II, when its eastern ally against Germany was Poland, France is trying to counterbalance the rising economic and military weight of Germany by making political appeals to the East to oppose Berlin.

One of the greatest dangers facing working people is that the intensification of international conflict is accompanied by the deliberate stoking up of militarism and chauvinism to divide the working class, as starkly seen in the attacks on immigrants. As conflicts between the major European powers set Europe back onto a path of disintegration and war, the road to the unification of Europe passes through the struggle to unite the working class for the overthrow of capitalism and establishment of socialism in all of the countries of Europe.

In this fraught political context, anti-immigrant sentiment incited across Eastern Europe, in France, by parties ranging from Valls’ Socialist Party to the neo-fascist National Front (FN), and in Germany, by the CSU and politicians like Thilo Sarrazin, is setting Europe on a course to disaster.

Under the impact of anti-German forces in France such as FN leader Marine Le Pen and Left Front leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, or anti-Greek sentiment stoked up by the entire German ruling elite, the anti-immigrant hysteria and militarism being promoted across Europe can explode once again into the hatred between European nations that repeatedly plunged the continent into war in the last century.

Alex Lantier

The refugee tragedy and the European Union: The balance sheet for 2015


By Martin Kreickenbaum
11 January 2016

The barbaric treatment meted out to refugees fleeing to Europe has revealed before the whole world the inhumane and barbaric nature of the European Union. The EU responded to the hundreds of thousands of desperate people trying to escape the war-ravaged regions of the Middle East and North Africa or the social misery of the Balkans by sealing off the EU’s external borders, erecting barbed wire fences, locking up refugees in detention centres and carrying out mass deportations.

The mistreatment of refugees has assumed proportions that would have been unthinkable for many people twelve months ago. In broad sections of the population, indignation and sympathy were aroused by the images of the bodies washed ashore after drowning in the Mediterranean; refugees living in inhuman hygienic conditions in makeshift tent camps; border guards and soldiers forcing refugees back with batons, rubber bullets and tear gas; refugees, like the prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, with numbers written on their forearms; and families who have had to travel hundreds of kilometres on foot with small children.

In contrast to the humane sentiments of Europe’s workers and young people, the governments of European countries have engaged in a sordid competition to see who could most effectively deter refugees or push them into neighbouring countries as soon as possible. In the Schengen area, national barriers were re-imposed and border controls introduced to drive refugees away. The surge of nationalism and the debate about refugee quotas have brought the sharp conflicts of interest within the European Union to the fore and threaten to blow it apart.

The utter hypocrisy of the European Union in dealing with refugees was put on display in October 2013, when a refugee boat capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa and 366 people were sent to their deaths. The leaders of the European Union gathered by their coffins and the EU Commission President declared, “We do not accept that thousands die at Europe’s borders.”

In the 27 months since then, according to official figures, more than 7,000 refugees have lost their lives at the gates of Europe. According to estimates by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 3,771 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean last year, up from 3,279 in 2014. Now, the Aegean has increasingly become a death trap for migrants. In 2014, only four drowned refugees were registered there, in 2015 it was 805.

The Mediterranean was again the deadliest region in the world for refugees last year. Of 5,350 migrant deaths worldwide, 70 percent were in the Mediterranean. In addition, there were at least 138 deaths within the EU, refugees struck down by trains in Macedonia, asphyxiated in lorries on the transit route from the Balkans to Central Europe or killed in the Euro Tunnel between France and Britain.

In total, the IOM counted 1,004,356 refugees who arrived in Europe by sea, almost five times as many as the 219,000 who arrived in 2014. While the 153,052 refugees who arrived via the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy was nearly the same as the previous year, the number of refugees arriving in Greece from Turkey via the Aegean rose tenfold to 847,084.

But this was still only a fraction of the estimated 60 million people worldwide who were forced to flee from wars, persecution and hunger. Despite the fact that the one million refugees who arrived in 2015 constitute only 0.2 percent of the total population of the European Union, the European governments have steadily intensified the repression against refugees in the course of the year.

Refugee deterrence

The German government was the first to start, unceremoniously declaring the Balkans to be “safe countries of origin,” in the face of rising numbers of refugees from those countries. Initially in Bavaria and later throughout the country, special detention centres were set up in which refugees from the Balkans are detained. Their asylum applications are rejected in fast-track procedures. The perfidious idea of “ safe countries of origin,” which makes an individual right to asylum an absurdity, is now aggressively promoted and applied throughout the European Union.

In April last year, when within a few days more than 1,200 refugees drowned off the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Sicily, the EU did not step up rescue operations but instead established the EUNAVFOR Med military operation and sent a dozen warships into the Mediterranean. The aim of EUNAVFOR Med is to find refugee boats and sink them. In addition, EU soldiers are to march into Libyan coastal towns to take military action against suspected refugee smugglers there and destroy boats lying on the beach.

In the second half of the year, the focus of refugee deterrence shifted increasingly to the so-called Balkan route. Refugees from Syria, who were starving in the camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan because neither the European Union nor the United States wanted to provide sufficient funds for basic services, and who were not allowed to work and whose children could not attend school, set out in desperation for Europe.

They experienced a weeks-long ordeal on the miserable trek through the Greek islands, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary towards central Europe. Along the entire route they were continuously rounded up and regularly abused by police officers. To date, there are neither fixed humanitarian camps nor an adequate supply of food, water or adequate sanitation on the Balkan route.

European governments responded to the wave of the poor and starving as if it were a hostile invasion force. This was expressed most clearly by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. “If we give them [the refugees] the impression that they are welcome, that would be a moral defeat. We must make it clear to them: Do not come,” he said in Brussels in September.

When thousands of refugees were stranded at Budapest train station and could not move backward or forward, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed with her counterparts in Austria and Hungary, Werner Faymann and Viktor Orban, to allow them to continue in order to avert a complete destabilization of the Balkans and sharp tensions within the EU.

But that did not change the fact that the refugees’ lives were made a living hell. Hungary erected a 3.5-metre-high barbed wire fence and declared illegal border crossings to be a criminal offence carrying one year’s imprisonment. Refugees were bombarded with tear gas grenades and beaten with batons. Since then, Germany and Austria, countries of destination for most of the refugees, have sought to deter them through unbearable conditions in the reception centres and accelerated deportation procedures, and by reducing benefits.

In recent months other states have followed Hungary’s example, erecting border fences and making illegal entry a criminal offence. Under pressure from the German and Austrian governments, the Balkans finally closed their borders for refugees who did not come from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

In addition, the European Union has put massive pressure on the Greek government to better secure the external borders and set up registration centres. These so-called “hot spots” are nothing more than concentration camps where refugees are detained and have their fingerprints taken like criminals, and are deported in summary asylum proceedings as soon as possible.

The European border protection agency Frontex was tasked with carrying out mass deportations, and had its mandate especially extended to this end. In the future, Frontex is to be used to deter refugees, even against the will of an EU member state. States such as Greece, Italy or Bulgaria would thus become quasi-protectorates of the EU.

In the last weeks of the year, the EU also pushed through the externalization of refugee deterrence, negotiating dirty deals with African dictatorships and the authoritarian regime in Turkey. While the government in Ankara has been offered three billion euros to keep refugees from entering Europe, the countries of Africa have been told that development aid will only be paid in return for cooperation in the deterrence of refugees.

The EU also does not flinch from involving the dictatorship in Eritrea, which shoots down refugees, or in Sudan, against whose President Omar al-Bashir the International Criminal Court has an outstanding arrest warrant for genocide and war crimes.

By contrast, the EU plan to redistribute 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy, announced with enormous fanfare, has failed utterly. To date, there has been agreement to take just 4,027 refugees, with only 272 from Eritrea and Syria actually being accepted. Particularly in the Eastern European countries, there is fierce resistance to a redistribution quota of refugees. Like the Hungarian prime minister, the new Polish government has also categorically rejected any further intake of refugees.

New repression

The first week of the new year shows that the EU intends to intensify the repression against refugees. Since the icy temperatures have halted crossings over the Aegean, and some 2,000 refugees continue to reach the Greek islands every day, the Greek coast guard is deliberately pushing back refugee boats into Turkish waters, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported. When this resulted in a boat capsizing, 34 refugees drowned in the icy waters, their bodies washing up on the Turkish coast.

In Germany, demands in the political establishment and media are growing louder for increased deportations, the closure of the border with Austria and a ceiling on the number of refugees admitted.

At the same time, together with the United States and other European powers, Britain and France are also aggressively seeking the intensification of the bombing of Syria. Plans for a ground invasion are in preparation, which would enormously increase the number of refugees fleeing to Europe. In addition, according to a report by Tunisie Numérique, the US, along with Italy, France and Britain, wants to bomb positions of the Islamic State in western Libya, which would result in another massive wave of refugees. The NATO countries are planning to counter the disastrous consequences of their military action by preventing anyone fleeing from finding safety.

The situation in Europe increasingly resembles the first half of the 20th century. In 1940, the Fourth International wrote in its manifesto against imperialist war: “The world of decaying capitalism is overcrowded. The question of admitting a hundred extra refugees becomes a major problem for such a world power as the United States.”

The decaying capitalist society “is striving to squeeze the Jewish people from all its pores,” the manifesto continues, “seventeen million individuals out of the two billion populating the globe, that is, less than 1 percent, can no longer find a place on our planet! Amid the vast expanses of land and the marvels of technology, which has also conquered the skies for man as well as the earth, the bourgeoisie has managed to convert our planet into a foul prison.”

The barbarous ill-treatment of refugees in “democratic” countries reveals the true face of capitalism. A society that spends hundreds of billions of euros overnight to rescue ailing banks, and in which the number of billionaires is constantly growing, is supposedly unable to take in refugees and provide them with decent conditions.

The brutal treatment of refugees is an expression of the hostility of the ruling elite towards the working class and youth throughout Europe. Their barbaric attitude towards people who are fleeing war, poverty and oppression also finds expression in the austerity measures imposed on workers and young people in Greece and other EU states.

The national and social tensions in Europe reached levels last year that can only be suppressed by authoritarian measures. The immediate targets of the border closures are refugees, but in the longer term, they are a declaration of war against the entire European working class.

Swedish fascists burn homes, blame crisis on refugees

By Rory Smith On November 28, 2015

Post image for Swedish fascists burn homes, blame crisis on refugeesRefugees flee their homes destroyed by a neoliberal thirst for cheap oil, while in the recipient countries the same forces have ruined many lives.

“Burn all of them down, but first nail the doors and windows shut.”

”If you want to achieve the full effect, wait until the house is full of people.”

These are just two examples of the several thousand remarks left by Sweden Democrats’ online following the most recent case of arson; an incident that left a home sheltering 14 refugees destroyed. One Internet thread detailed the various recipes and necessary ingredients to make napalm.

The formerly obscure and enfeebled Sweden Democrats (SD) – a far right, anti-immigrant, nationalist party whose roots are in neo-Nazism – has been transformed into one of the most potent political forces in Sweden. By transmogrifying immigrants into villains – enemies of both the welfare state and Swedish values – the party has gleaned over 25 percent of the popular vote.

The most recent refugee-home torching came after SD political leaders announced that the immigrant issue should be taken to the streets, outside the ambit of parliament. The intentional ambiguity of the statement galvanized more than a few zealous of their supporters to action, resulting in a spike of refugee-home burnings, a trend that was only recently – after the 17th fire – condemned by SD officials.

While the world might have united for a few ephemeral seconds around the image of Aylan – the Syrian boy who drowned alongside his brother in the Mediterranean – in the end the refugee crisis only seems to have bolstered the xenophobia, nationalism, and violence sweeping across Europe. In Germany alone, there have been over 505 attacks against refugees and refugee-homes this year. It is a trend that seems, at first glance, to challenge our approximation to what Jeremy Rifkin coined The Empathetic Civilization.

And though all this might come as a surprise, there is nothing surprising about prejudice and intolerance in Europe. What is surprising, is how the current right-wing political trend as well as the refugee crisis find their origins in the same systemic illness.

European intolerance and Swedish neo-Nazism

While you might think that the experiences of World War II and the Bosnian War would be sufficient deterrents against pursuing anything remotely nationalistic or ethnically intolerant, history invariably reveals our collective short-term memory. The current anti-immigrant demagoguery and the consequent resurgence of nationalist parties across Europe, many of whom have their origins in neo-Nazism, seems to testify to this.

Kenan Malik reminds us in a recent article that Europe has never been a homogenous place – even when its citizens shared the same skin color and religion – and that intolerance has always had its place in European society. The former urban and rural poor were often treated and referred to as “inferior savage races”.

Sweden’s history is no different. Its romance with Nazism precedes World War II, and while it might have dematerialized for a little bit, this uncompromising current never altogether vanished.

The country’s economic crisis in the 1990s, coupled with an immigration policy that provided asylum for around 85,000 war refugees from the former Yugoslavia, led to emergence of various neo-Nazi movements. As immigration slowed so did these sentiments. However once again, the kind of cultural prejudice and intolerance that wouldn’t have been out of place in 18th century France, Victorian England, Nazi Germany, or 1990s Sweden is on the rise.

Bushisms and republican machinations in Europe

The spate of burnings represents a recent and more outwardly aggressive trend against immigrants. It has been fueled in part by Europe’s latest generation of nationalist demagogues, whose irresponsible rhetoric – and subtle complicity, at least in Sweden, by not denouncing these burnings until recently – is partially responsible for the proliferation of this violence.

While it is hard to imagine Europe becoming as politically intransigent as the US, its ultra-right parties are well on their way to sounding as fear-mongering as American Republicans. Jimmie Åkesson, the current leader of SD, ran his last, and very successful, campaign on a platform of fear-inducing casuistry, proclaiming: “The election is a choice between mass immigration and welfare. You choose.”

Nothing is that cut and dry in Sweden or Europe. These are parliaments with an array of eclectic political parties; negotiations, pacts, and compromise are an immutable part of the political machine. Furthermore there isn’t any reliable evidence demonstrating the incompatibility of immigration and a healthy welfare state; as we will see, studies show just the opposite.

But by drawing such a stark line – rendering immigration and the welfare state seemingly irreconcilable – Mr. Åkesson, just like other right-wing politicians in Europe, has polarized the argument. He has pitted immigration directly against the welfare state – a sacrosanct entity in Sweden and Europe.

You almost begin to wonder if Europe’s ultra-right are emulating the rhetorical stratagems of Bush and Rumsfeldt. Mr. Åkesson’s ultimatum had a similar ring to the infamous, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Fear corrodes rationality and reason, and such polarizing and fear-mongering rhetoric in the post-9/11 era allowed Bush and Co. to manipulate the American public with the precision of Butcher Ding. In this post-Paris epoch such tactics will be especially potent.

Indulging the particular fears of Swedes, whose long history with the welfare state is an indelible part of the national ethos, is a particularly effective way of gaining support, especially from a demographic whose tenuous position in society renders them especially susceptible to such sophistry.

There are few general demographic features that are characteristic of not only SD supporters, but also ultra-right adherents across Europe. On the whole they are young, male, under-educated, and under-employed. In Sweden their main interests are cars, motorcycles, TV, video games, and sport fishing.

Though it would undoubtedly be much easier to just shake our fists and rebuke the throngs of right-wing voters as racists, Euro-trash, or bigoted nationalists, in the end we would only be playing the same superficial and spurious blame game as their demagogue leaders. Furthermore, this would only give us a very superficial understanding of a population that has been shaped by a much more complicated process.

Neoliberalism – the real enemy

Historically Sweden was one of the strongest and most equitable welfare states in the world. However, in the early ’90s Sweden endured a financial crisis and things began to change. As a stopgap measure to parry the crisis, and the resultant hyperinflation, Sweden instituted a series of austerity measures and reforms that cut social benefits, curtailed union power, reduced the size of the public sector, and initiated a process of privatization that continues today.

If this sounds familiar, it is because it is the same process that has been replicated almost universally since the 1980s around the world. From the US to Latin America, to Africa, to Asia, to Russia, and most recently Greece, IMF and World Bank economists as well as technocrats from these same regions, have been imposing this same package – often coercively or with the support of autocrats propped up by the West.

These reforms reflect a mode of economic thinking known as neoliberalism. Under neoliberalism the individual and the market are supreme entities to which modern nation-states genuflect, serve, and remain subservient. As Margaret Thatcher, one of neoliberalism’s greatest champions said: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women…People look to themselves first.”

Whereas it was previously the state’s responsibility to provide employment to its citizens, according to neoliberalism it is the individual’s responsibility. If you are unsuccessful, it isn’t the state, economy, or any of the distortions and inequalities therein entrenched that are accountable; it is your own failure as a human.

SD’s unfortunate relationship with Neoliberalism

So how does this relate to ultra-right in Sweden and Europe, you might be asking. The shrinking of the public sector, and the curtailment of unions meant the weakening of union and labor power, and as a consequence, also a loss of solidarity and identity. The Swedish welfare state, which had previously unified different sectors of Swedish society through its collectivism, was slowly dismembered.

Moreover, by dissolving the public sector as well as union power, many Swedes were left without jobs or the social benefits that would’ve previously buffered the unemployed. With fewer jobs, a greater burden and pressure on the individual to find work – meaningful or not – and no social safeguards to mitigate the precariousness of being unemployment, many Swedes were left behind. One universal legacy of neoliberalism is inequality. Today, among all 34 OECD countries today, inequality is growing fastest in Sweden.

Rising levels of inequality, economic marginalization, and social isolation have limited participation in mainstream Swedish society and the economy. The result has been the disenfranchisement of many Swedes. Today, out of a population of 9 million, 618,000 Swedes are working temporary jobs with little security.

The economic vulnerability and peripheral social status of this vast population renders them susceptible to the populist rhetoric of right-wing politicians, who pander directly to their deepest fears and insecurities. Not only have these leaders created a tangible, albeit specious, enemy and source to their woes, immigrants, but they have also forged a collective sense of identity – through their struggle against both immigration and the neoliberal technocrats in the EU – under which they can unite.

The discourse around immigration has invariably been fueled by misperceptions and xenophobia. You don’t have to dig all that deeply to see the benefits of migration, something that has been for too long severely and irresponsibly misrepresented.

Immigrants are generally entrepreneurial, they fill various labor niches of the economy – especially in Europe where the aging population necessitates more working-age laborers – generally contribute more to the welfare state than they take in benefits, and are highly motivated to contribute and create a better society. Furthermore, over 50 percent of immigration to Europe in 2015 will come from Syria, a population whose highly-skilled workforce sets them apart from immigrants emanating from other countries.

Refugees, Neoliberalism’s collateral damage

Ironically and sadly, neoliberalism – and the associated economic and geopolitical machinations that have swept through the Middle East and Africa over the last 30 years – is also largely responsible for the current refugee crisis.

The imperative of neoliberalism is to open new markets through liberalization and increase global demand by creating new consumer bases. Where certain powers like the US, China, or the EU, see themselves as guardians of the market, and where they have certain market interests, such as mineral extraction in Africa and oil, there are inevitably transgressions, especially where regulations and law are ineffective and corruption is commonplace. Unfortunately this is ubiquitous in most of the developing world.

Neoliberalism might have opened the economies of Africa up for direct foreign investment, but the price has been the disruption and reshuffling of economies, labor markets, and public sectors, such as education, health care, and sanitation, according to Western paradigms and interests. There have been a few winners, but mostly there have been losers. Many immigrants are economic refugeeswhose livelihoods have been crushed by global capital, corporate interests, thecommodification of local agriculture, and the downsizing of the state.

Those refugees fleeing failed-states, where violence, human rights’ abuses, and insecurity prevail, such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Libya, are the collateral damage of neoliberal geopolitics.

In these areas oil, finance, business, autocracy, democracy, and national economic interests all mix, mingle, and blur into something that may appear opaque but is pretty straightforward. Like an addict, neoliberalism depends on a constant and dependable source of cheap oil. Cheap oil means more pocket money for consumers, and generally, global economic growth. The neoliberal paradigm requires constant growth to continue functioning. Cheap oil is an expedient but very short-term and costly way of achieving this.

While we would all like to believe that the refugee crisis inspired the latest international interventions in Syria, it seems more likely that it is just one more geopolitical power play as Europe tries to wean itself from Russian gas, and Russia tries to protect the several billions it has already invested in oil investments in Syria. And let’s not forget that war has become an economy and market unto itself, with US defense firms making a killing on weapons sales to Iraq and Syria.

We are all burning

There are boons to crises. They bring us face to face with certain paradigmatic insufficiencies and by doing so they encourage us to engage in a kind of collective introspection. While “Generation Me” signals the fruition of Thatcher’s dream, we are beginning to see that a life of me is not only narcissistic and vacuous, but also noxious to the common good.

Neoliberalism, according to former Uruguayan president Jose Mujica, has created, “…a civilization against simplicity, against sobriety, against all natural cycles, and against the most important things: Adventure. Solidarity. Family. Friendship. Love.”

Ironically it isn’t “rational” self-interest, but giving, kindness, and cooperation that guarantee our own longevity and that of our species. If anything is going to change, it will require a collective effort of disengaging ourselves from the current mythology of individualism; of sublimating the self to the whole, taking to giving, and engaging not in the myopic trappings of the hedonic treadmill but in a politics of compassion and empathy.

In the end aren’t we all refugees – a great diaspora of randomness sheltered under the thin blue atmospheric line of the planet? By leaving the roots of neoliberalism in tact and unattended we are only stoking the existential and economic flames that will, at some point, engulf all of us.

Rory Smith is a freelance writer with a masters in International Development and Management and founder of Escalando Fronteras, a non-profit in Mexico that uses climbing as a way of getting at-risk youth away from gangs and organized crime in Monterrey.

Dreaming of democracy: refugees on Europe’s periphery

By Cirila Toplak On November 20, 2015

Post image for Dreaming of democracy: refugees on Europe’s periphery

Tensions are rising in Slovenia, where passing refugees continue to dream of Europe while the local population is losing all hope of a better future.

Photo: refugees waiting in line to board a ship in Greece, by CAFOD Photo Library, via Flickr.

Many Slovenians have very firm opinions on refugees without ever having seen one of them: surely, they are all dangerous Islamists and they come to Europe to take something away from us. The few people here that have had personal contact with the refugees generalize their singular experience into a bigger picture: if one sees a group of refugees composed of mostly men, then surely only men are coming, and women and children are there just for the cameras.

Others still create a pattern based on second hand information: one refugee with an expensive smartphone turns into all of them just pretending to be destitute; one woman saying on TV that she would not stay here because Slovenia is too poor, explains why all the refugees want to go to Germany.

I can agree that the refugees are about to take something away from us, here on Europe’s periphery. They threaten our miserable status quo, imposed by our neoliberal rulers. Yes, Slovenia is poor, compared to Germany. There is a certain subconscious concession in the indignation over the refugees unwilling to stay here: were Slovenia a prosperous, tolerant and open minded society, they would certainly think twice.

By merely passing through, they hold up a mirror to us. If they managed their ultimate pilgrimage so far, they will persevere to a place where they feel welcome. They cannot easily feel welcome in Slovenia. Let me explain why, as someone working at a refugee camp.

Slovenian authorities have perfected a “humanitarian corridor.” It is intended for the transfer of refugees across the territory of Slovenia as quickly as possible without any contact with the local population–lately not even with the media. Considering the majority’s intolerance towards the refugees, the corridor protects the refugees at least as much as the locals.

Presently, a barbed wire fence is being erected on the Slovenian-Croatian border. Only weeks ago the Prime Minister publicly boasted of Slovenia as ‘too European and progressive’ to ever follow the example of our Hungarian neighbors and close off the border. To save his face, he speaks of ‘technical barriers’ being installed, but no one is fooled.

The media also do their part. First they referred to “refugees”, then to “migrants” and now to “foreigners”. These are not exactly synonyms. Refugees fleeing to save their lives have the right to international legal protection. Migrants “only” flee poverty — as if extreme poverty in Nigeria or Iraq was not a matter of life and death; as if both, refugees and migrants were not pushed to leave their countries by the same factors and actors ruling our unequal world. And foreigners are simply all those who are not us. Yet, from what I have seen, these people, however we call them, are us in more than one way.

So far, the barbed wire on the European Union’s outer rim has only stopped local wildlife in its tracks. The free flow of people is one of the EU’s trademarks, after all. The refugees cannot be stopped and there is something hopeful in this power of the powerless. Their sheer number is formidable, when encountered in an open field, at a train station, or in a refugee camp. Perhaps that is why sensationalist media speak of an “invasion”, when only a million of them have reached Europe this year. I say only a million, because there are 500 million Europeans, and the thing to fear most is still our own irrational fears.

To feed this fear, the refugees better remain abstract numbers to us. If we knew their personal stories and saw them as human beings, it would be much more difficult to fear and loathe them. Numeration is good for something else too: it helps to dehumanize the refugees in their own eyes.

Have you ever wondered why they had to ride, walk and even swim the 2,000 kilometer Balkan trail, while an airplane would take them to Germany in a few hours? Maybe, so that now when they arrive at their final destination, they’re so exhausted, deprived, humiliated and apathetic that they are easy to handle. Moreover, they are grateful their ordeal is over and many cannot wait to start their new careers as cheap labor — pushing labor costs down for all workers and promising an uncertain future for their integration.

Crossing Slovenia, the refugees are so detached from their surroundings they often do not know where they are. But the isolation in the “corridor” is only one reason Slovenia doesn’t appear welcoming to them. In the refugee camp where I volunteer for the Red Cross, some government employees and even humanitarians are quite openly hostile to the refugees.

A soldier guarding the camp told me that his entire unit was to go on a mission abroad. Instead, they were stuck on endless freezing night shifts at the refugee camp. Missions abroad are the only opportunity for the soldiers to augment their sorry salaries. The refugees on the other hand, the soldier said, traveled with hundreds of thousands of euros on them. I asked him how many cases like that he knew out of over 240,000 refugees that have crossed Slovenia recently. He knew two.

The police in the camp have other understandable worries. They are in charge of preventing the refugees from scattering outside the corridor (although upon their registration the refugees receive a temporary Schengen visa allowing them to move freely). When a large group of refugees are waiting at the camp to be let across the border to Austria, special police forces in full combat gear yell at them and have their clubs out, ready to prevent a stampede. The police must feel uneasy for they are perhaps a few dozen commanding close to a thousand sometimes.

Their mission to keep the crowd in check reminds somewhat of the “1% versus 99%”. Our oligarchs are also well armed by extension of the state repressive apparatus and well protected by our political and legal institutions. Their media discourse is loud and authoritative to make them appear more powerful than they are. The multitude opposing the outnumbered police is poorly equipped for survival, let alone for confrontation. They obey because they still have something to lose: hope. Hope for a better life in the Promised Land of Europe. What hope, what future do we Europeans on the periphery have left, hopelessly caught as we are in daily struggle for survival, debt, consumerism and instant gratification? What can we still believe in?

No one speaks of religion in the camp; I have seen no one pray. The children are numb with hardship and discomfort, as if they had no more tears to cry. Adults look serious and irritated with extreme fatigue. Some tell me that this refugee camp is the first on the Balkan trail where they are entitled to a warm shower, a proper dinner and some sleep, albeit in noisy and smelly tent structures increasingly unfit for winter temperatures. Meanwhile, neighboring Croatia claims to champion humanitarian solidarity by opening its borders and letting all incomers to gather at the gates of Slovenia.

This “humanitarian” policy consists of setting the maximum time for a refugee to spend in Croatia between 6 and 12 hours. Slovenian authorities follow the rules of a de facto defunct Schengen system that slows down the flow of refugees for the sake of bureaucracy. The refugees end up being grateful for that because it means warm food and rest. They are after all human beings, not goods to be transported and delivered ASAP. Some have been traveling for weeks, those from Afghanistan and Pakistan for months. I have met three young boys from Kabul who made it to Slovenia alone, covering 6,000 kilometers.

Although exhausted, many refugees are willing to recount their experience. Young Syrian university graduates, two men and a woman, travel together. Syria is currently being depopulated, they say, the border with Turkey is unguarded; a sign of a failed state. So those who prefer peace to war and cannot identify with the radical Islam of ISIS leave first for Turkey. When these three saw the conditions in Turkish border refugee camps, they pushed on to Greece and survived the rubber boat crossing of the increasingly choppy Mediterranean. They are critical of Arab contemporary art: it lacks abstraction and memory, they say, seemingly unaware of the orientalization by the orientalized.

They abhor traveling together with other refugees who are different from them and who, unlike them, have nothing to offer to Europe. These educated atheist Syrians complain so earnestly of those “peasants’” eating and hygiene habits that they make me smile at how similar we are, similarly intolerant to Others. They try to keep their individualism – another very western concept – alive, just like that young woman who badly needs a coat but is not happy with the size of the one I find for her in the clothes storage tent.

The shoes are the wrong color, too, but this is her challenged self, trying to survive in anonymous crowd, not vanity or pickiness as the soldier outside the tent hisses. Today you help them, tomorrow you’ll get a bullet in the head, he adds knowingly. I have learned not to react to such assumptions; one cannot win an argument with those who know it all. Only children deserve unmitigated compassion, perhaps some of the police and military have kids at home, too.

From a distance the refugees all seem the same, even within the camp. A dark crowd of the malnourished and poorly dressed, faces tight with worries. Only from up close can you tell Syrians from Afghanis–the two most represented ethnicities–hear a Babylon of languages, and appreciate their diversity. Were the European Union’s motto ‘United In Diversity’ anything more than a political platitude, these people would be an asset, for they are all sorts and kinds.

On my evening shift, one large group is leaving for the no man’s land between Slovenia and Austria where they will wait for long hours in the freezing cold to be transported onwards. Meanwhile, another group is already walking off and limping on the next train. For a short time, the enormous tents housing hundreds are almost empty. A family in the far corner waits for a child who had to be hospitalized. An old man and his daughter have also been allowed to spend the night inside with their gravely ill wife and mother. The doctor says that she has hours to live and her hollow face has the gray color of the dying.

She refuses to go to the hospital so her deathbed is set amidst temporarily empty army bunk beds and aggressive smells of garbage and excrements. Her dignified relatives seem at peace with her departure. The frail old man starts telling me of his life in Syria as a journalist and political activist, his 16 years in prison, the horrors of torture by five different Syrian secret police, and finally, the difficult escape together with his sick spouse.

The daughter, a lawyer, shows me her father’s sentence: to become a non-human, unworthy of funeral, were he found dead. I bled for democracy, the old man says in French. How could this man not have a place in the stronghold of democracy the European Union claims to be?  Unless this word, democracy, means nothing anymore.

It seems that Europe cannot get rid of barbed wire. The bygone era of borders and fences is catching up with us all over again. The Europeans–at least the ones on Europe’s periphery–see their European dreams shattered by non-Europeans who still believe in it. Maybe the refugees will settle down among us, and open their eyes to the reality around them. Then, we can finally get to know each other, and perhaps even start creating a different Europe together.

Cirila Toplak is a professor of political science at the University of Ljubljana, animal welfare activist and Red Cross volunteer.