DR SIMON PARKER, INTERVIEWED BY MATHIEU LOHR
Who do you blame? Brexit, Trump, the European Migration Crisis: no matter what your political convictions are, we will most likely agree that the concept of ‘crisis’ is a recurrent theme featuring prominently in all three of the above. The European Migration Crisis is officially dated to 2015, but just as with Trump or Brexit, the eventual result was well predated by structural forces at work. The real question then becomes: but which? Dr Simon Parker sat down with us to discuss the blame we should bring to capitalism and western (neo-)liberalism, the forces unleashed by economic inequality, and how we ended up where we are today, and where we might be tomorrow.
Good day Dr Parker: when we talk about the Migration Crisis, what should we take into consideration, and who should we blame for the mess we are in?
The migration crisis is a complex problem, perhaps the biggest problem facing the social sciences today, since I believe it requires us to shift from an exclusive focus on the state and to see borders as many millions of people are forced to see them – not as sacred and inviolable frontiers between sovereign nations – but as mere obstacles to safety or a better life. Because migration studies tends to conflate state power and individual subjectivity – especially at the policy level – there is a tendency to ignore what generates the need to move. This should not surprise us because as James Scott  has powerfully argued, state elites have always been challenged and threatened by unsanctioned movements or nomadism which strikes at the very foundation of the sedentary concept of the nation-state. In a world in which much of the economic purpose and legitimacy of the nation-state has been stripped away by the effects of globalisation, the purpose and function of the state has been increasingly reduced to managing populations and this in turn has led to a huge investment in the securitisation of trans-border movements that was absent even 30 or 40 years ago.
This also has consequences for our understanding of citizenship. The idea that citizenship as an individualised civic good could be shared or extended without the permission of those with prior title is a fundamental assault on the liberal idea of property, which has been very much inflated in western subjects. This then becomes an argument about state legitimacy and the last vestiges of sovereignty, given that there has been no economic sovereignty for a long time.
Brexit then was about both commodifying and making exclusive the nature of territorial citizenship. What we have now is a symbiotic relationship between the state and a public that feels out of control and disempowered by the forces of globalisation. The state then tries to compensate for this by using territorial exclusivity as an instrument of legitimation. In the same vein, Trump is attracting similar groups of voters for similar reasons: it is not just blue collar workers, but also affluent people who are uncomfortable about a world where none of the old uncertainties remain. The world today is about the distinction between those who feel comfortable in a world of movement and change – usually university educated, urban populations – and those, still yet the majority, who don’t. In the 1920s and 1930s we saw that same historical current result in revolt against the metropolitan liberal cosmopolitan classes, with racism and xenophobia always focused on the big city as a form of degeneration. Now we are in a new phase of backlash against liberalism – which is extremely worrying because the institutions of liberal cultural power that used to check chauvinist elites are being undermined.
These populist sentiments are now increasingly affecting the information economy for reasons that have to do with competition for market-share, and a feeling that media outlets need to reflect rather than inform, educate or lead public opinion, and this extends even to public broadcasters like the BBC.
There was an interesting article in The Conversation about how the BBC reported on Brexit and the EU in general , and they found a quite conservative and pro-business bias.
Yes, and also the way in which issues are reported, how climate change is reported for example. It is not acceptable to say: what does balance mean? Balance cannot mean that you give equal air-time to flat-earthers. Just because you have a lot of people with completely erroneous assumptions does not mean you should give them equal time to say whatever they like, but this appears to be the new norm in public broadcasting.
What about resistance, then? There seem to be especially in the West quite some politicians and movements, minorities and majorities that want a more cosmopolitan world order; open-borders and all that comes with it.
I think there are some aspects of that, but I don’t think you should assume that just because those movements and minorities are pressing for their own rights and recognition that this could not introduce new exclusivities and divisions. This is the problem that liberal democrats face: they want to transform the majority of the planet that does not live under democracy into some kind of liberal democratic model. But when you look at actually existing liberal democracies, what do they do other than underpin the power of the 1%? People who are struggling to survive, in often appalling shanty towns and similar, are not going to engage in popular contestation movements just for the sake of a vote. They want to be assured that that vote will produce positive change for them and their families.
First inwards, then outwards looking?
Yes, there is no point of having political emancipation without economic emancipation. It is the trouble that western-liberals, especially from the US, have: “Let them eat ballot-papers”, when these people basically starve the rest of the time. This is actually one of those things that the leaders of countries such as Russia, China, and other parts of Asia and Africa understand, which is; if you can get that bit of government right, filling people’s bellies, they might not be as worried as you think they are about how corrupt their government is. There is remarkably little interest in that stuff. The challenge for liberalism then is that it doesn’t actually offer sufficient concrete practical rewards to people outside of the fifth of the world that consumes and controls most of its resources, and virtually all of its wealth.
But then it is a crux: you earlier mentioned that the system has taken away economic governance from the state itself, and so it cannot take care of its people – yes it’s a double-bind – and the only thing it can do is having them eat ballot-papers by re-imposing sovereignty and giving them the impression something is going to happen, even if nothing can happen.
Actually, there is a great paper that just came out by a colleague of mine: Will Davies on “The New Neoliberalism”, in which he says that the post-2008 phase is showing how neoliberalism has already achieved its aim with regard to marketising state and society, but that it has now run out of road. It is essentially a failed economic project. There is no magic formula for dealing with the falling rate of profit, and the nation-state had to throw its furniture onto the bonfire to keep global capitalism warm. As a consequence, as a state project it has nothing to sit on from that point of view.
So what does the state do instead? It basically manages to create a diversionary obsession and conflict (all politics is about conflict after all) by pitting the slightly better off against the very poorest. That then is this political economy of punishment that Davies talks about, and which is becoming the new norm across the world.
So the main-issue at heart is the falling rate of profit of capitalism causing a snowball-effect on social relations within society that lends us where we are today?
Clearly, in the sense that the failure of the state as an agent of capitalist accumulation is leading to these more desperate convergences. In a sort of broad meta-scale, that is what is going on. Moreover, nowhere is one free of it. There are these kinds of spillover effects, like when you look at the Nordic economies that appear to have more or less dealt with the logics of capitalism whilst managing to sustain a broadly egalitarian high social-wage economy. But of course: there is still massive global uneven development and inequality, meaning the rest of the world is suffering social harm and damage and is going to look to those countries for protection, which in turn is putting such strain on the model that the Danes and the Swedes are becoming increasingly racist and xenophobic, pulling up the drawbridge, and everything else that comes with it. The contradictions cannot be deferred, or the can being kicked down the road indefinitely; that is the core problem.
What follows is that there will have to be a global solution. The sort of particular solutions that nation states have tried to implement are clearly all failing, and they are failing on the European scale as well.
- Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale University Press.