Refugees 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.