Europe’s Porous Borders: Leonidas Cheliotis and the logic of ‘punitive inclusion’

Think of borders in the 21st century and you immediately think of walls, barbed wire fences, razor wire, checkpoints, quasi-military border patrols on land and sea, surveillance cameras, sensors and a panoply of high-tech paraphernalia whose essential purpose is to keep unwanted people out.   This is the kind of imagery that we tend – rightly – to associate with ‘Fortress Europe’ and other border regimes that have begun to proliferate across the world, and on the Western borders in particular.

These reinforced barriers, we are told, are intended to protect us from Islamic State and other enemies that want to kill us; or from other morbid consequences of the ‘dark side of globalisation’ such as human traffickers, drugs, organized crime  or sexual exploitation. We take it for granted that  such barriers are necessary to protect our labour markets, our welfare systems, our cultures and our lifestyles against unwanted ‘illegal immigrants’,  whether they come in the form of despised ‘economic migrants’ or ‘bogus asylum seekers’ or simply refugees who we don’t want to find room for.

Governments routinely attempt to draw political capital by demonstrating their ability to exclude unwanted ‘illegal’ people at the border and deport those who make it through these barriers.   The European Union has attempted – with catastrophic consequences – to ‘manage’ and control the new 21st century migratory movements that are generally deemed to be harmful and threatening.

But there is also another dimension to the ‘ Fortress’ model which tends to receive less attention; namely that these barriers are not impermeable, and are not even intended to be. Every year tens of thousands of ‘illegal immigrants’ succeed in crossing Europe’s borders, and some of them succeed in finding work.  Usually the jobs they do are unskilled, low-paid,  and off the books.  They might work in construction, fruit-picking, agriculture, food production, or cockle-picking.   They might be found in the rural economies of peripheral European countries such as Greece, Spain or Italy, in Morecombe Bay, Madrid, Brescia or Athens.

These are the workers who inhabit the Sheffield  in Sanjeev Sahota’s  powerful  novel The Year of the Runaways; .men and women without rights, who can expect  no holidays, no sickness or unemployment benefits, or pensions.    Legally they don’t exist, but their illegality means that  they are constantly visible to police and immigration officials, and liable to  immigration raids, detention and deportation.

This is the grim reality for hundreds of thousands of men and women across Europe, who illegality makes it possible for them to work and yet also traps them in a permanent legal limbo where they can never access the rights of the ‘legal’ indigenous workforce, let alone the rights of national citizens.

Governments occasionally acknowledge this phenomenon, and shake their heads or wring their hands about it.  Some countries issue periodic amnesties which allow illegal workers to step out of their invisibility; others promise to crack down on the gangmasters and employers who make use of such labour – even if these efforts tend to be half-hearted and generally driven by the desire to deport undocumented migrants rather than protect workers from exploitation.

This new flexible ‘reserve army of labour’ is not simply an accidental consequence of Europe’s ‘hard’ borders, however.     When I was researching my book Fortress Europe, I met African workers in the greenhouses of Almeria in southern Spain who  lived in shacks and  were paid well below the minimum wage; and workers in the city of Brescia in northern Italy who staged a spectacular protest on a crane because they had been conned into paying for legal permits that they were never going to receive.

Nowadays, the indigenous European workforce is often encouraged to see migrant workers as competitors stealing ‘their’ jobs, but it was clear in  these and in other cases, that the undocumented workers who made it through Europe’s lethal gauntlet were generally doing jobs that Europeans did not want to do, and that their illegality had left them stranded in a permanent zone of exploitation that they could not change or escape from.

This is the argument that the LSE criminologist Dr Leonidas Cheliotis has made in a compelling new paper Punitive Inclusion. A Political Economy of Irregular Migration in the Margins of Europe,    which is due to  be published in the European Journal of Criminology.

Basing his research mostly on his native Greece, Cheliotis argues that the lethal Greek borders that have claimed so many migrant lives in recent years are actually more permeable than they appear, and that as a result, ‘  large flows of irregular immigration have effectively been channelled towards Greece”s perilous though still porous borders by ever-tightening restrictions imposed across Europe upon irregular immigration from other parts of the world, in the form, for example, of stricter policing of national borders and narrowed opportunities for accessing asylum and visa procedures.’

This combination has left nearly 400,000 undocumented migrants trapped inside Greece, on the desperate margins of a society in crisis, working in the largest shadow economy in Europe.  Not only have the border controls established by the European Union and successive Greek governments failed to prevent the exploitation of the undocumented migrant workforce, but they have actually facilitated it, since:

‘The massive swathes of irregular migrants who keep crossing the porous Greek borders in search of a better future lend themselves ideally both as exploitable workers and amenable reserves. For one, their numbers help ensure that a sufficiently large pool of “surplus” labourers is always at hand, whilst their desperate predicament as a result of poverty and attendant needs (e.g., to earn a living) further inclines them to exploitability if and when a job becomes available. ‘

The ‘exploitability’ of migrant workers in Greece, Cheliotis suggests, is facilitated by a dysfunctional and protracted asylum system and an inadequate and cumbersome regularisation process that generally issues only temporary work permits, when it issues them at all, and which  has transformed  migrant workers in emblematic members of the new 21st century precariat living  ‘in limbo, shifting between regular and irregular status with long breaks filled with uncertainty and anxiety in between, when their chances of falling victim to unscrupulous lawyers, mafia operators and corrupt state officials are also greater.’

All this is bad enough, but migrant workers are also subject to racist attacks  by Golden Dawn fascists and to ‘  intimidatory practices of over-policing, including a greater likelihood of being stopped and searched, alongside so-called “sweep” or “cleaning operations” launched in the name of fighting illegal immigration and associated crimes.’

Unscrupulous employers have found this marginalisation and vulnerability extremely useful.  In some cases Greek employers have actually threatened to call in Golden Dawn to deal with workers who have protested their wages and conditions. The violence directed at migrants, Cheliotis argues, is exacerbated by ‘mainstream political discourse [which] appears to have had an appreciable degree of influence on public attitudes, either inciting or sustaining and exacerbating concern about the impact of immigration on Greek society, fear of crime by immigrants, and punitiveness towards them.’

All these components are part of a process that Cheliotis calls ‘punitive inclusion’ in which

‘ apparently unrelated policies on matters of immigration, welfare, employment and punishment, together with practices of anti-migrant brutality and intimidation by state and non-state actors, have effectively formed a continuum of violence that forces irregular migrants either to submit to any available condition of work or to await for their chance in a disciplined fashion.’

The same could be said of many of the estimated  four million undocumented workers in Europe.  In his incisive analysis of  the relationship between illegality and exploitation in Greece,  Cheliotis  has also drawn much-needed attention to a generally unacknowledged consequence of our world of proliferating borders.

Many of his conclusions can be applied not only to Fortress Europe, but to the US-Mexico border and other barriers across the world that seek to keep certain categories of  ‘illegal’ people out, even as they ensure that others are trapped inside them,   at the very bottom of the great pyramid of precarious ‘flexible’ labour that our unequal and grossly unjust world increasingly relies on.

For a copy of the paper, contact Joanna Bale, LSE Press Office, [email protected].    


The Uses of Fear

The 21st century is a frightening place, so frightening in fact, that many of us would be forgiven if we just cowered under the blankets all day and never went anywhere.   Ebola, SARS, swine flu and bird flu, terrorism, ISIS,  people traffickers, migrants, financial implosion and the collapse of the eurozone – whatever face we put upon it, doom is haunting us, it seems, like never before.

Well not quite like never before.   Because politically speaking, fear is a powerful and very useful emotion.   In the late nineteenth century governments and police forces on both sides of the Atlantic tormented their populations with the spectre of a global anarchist conspiracy intent on the destruction of bourgeois civilisation.   Stalin’s malignant show trial prosecutor Andre Vyshinsky delighted in getting his already tortured and tormented victims to describe their involvement in demonic conspiracies that were as evil as they were improbable, in order to justify their death sentences and simultaneously terrify the Soviet population.

Joseph McCarthy played a very similar game with less lethal consequences during the high Cold War.  Whatever the particular context, the political instrumentalisation of fear generally has very similar aims: to direct and deflect potential criticism of a particular ruler or political system elsewhere, and to bind the ruled more closely to their rulers and make them more willing to accept policies and decisions that they might otherwise be inclined to question or reject outright.

Politically speaking, fear tends to usher in a whole range of negative states and emotions: passivity, submissiveness, unthinking acceptance of the status quo, hysteria, suspicion and compliance.    Fear has been oiling the wheels of  21st century politics ever since the collapse of the twin towers.   Again and again, democratic governments have warned their populations that the bad things we are witnessing may herald even worse to come; that organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS aren’t just a threat, but an ‘existential threat’; that the world is now uniquely vulnerable to collapse; that the ‘calculus of risk’ has changed to the point that even if there is a ‘one percent’ possibility that our enemies du jour might have nuclear weapons then that state should be attacked.

And since the global financial crisis erupted in 2007/8, fear has also been used quite cynically and systematically  to impose the great con-trick called austerity on populations that might otherwise have raised serious questions regarding  how the crisis was caused and what alternatives there might be to the remedies that have been proposed.  Again and again Greece has been threatened with the spectre of economic ruin if it didn’t submit to economic ‘reforms’ that will privatize large sections of the Greek economy and keep Greeks in debt for the indefinite future.

Other countries were then told that they should accept a similar model if they didn’t want to ‘end up like Greece.’  Scottish voters were told they would end up bankrupt if they voted yes in the referendum.  British voters during the last election were warned that a Labour victory would threaten ‘stability’ and undermine the recovery.  Now we are seeing the same politics of fear once again in response to the Corbyn surge, as Labour rightwingers and pundits warn that Corbyn’s proposals are ‘fantasy economics’ that would undermine economic growth and plunge the country into recession and chaos.

These warnings invariably use the prospect of even worse to come to browbeat the population into accepting austerity as the least bad option.   Question whether taxpayers should have recapitalized and essentially rewarded banks guilty of malpractice or malfeasance and you are presented with visions of ATM machines running out of cash if we don’t.

Suggest that austerity might be a choice rather than a necessity and spell out another possible way of running the economy, as Corbyn has done, and a posse of Labour ‘big beasts’ and pretty much the entire commentariat from left to right will come after you to describe you and your supporters as hysterics engaging in fantasy politics who are endangering society, economic growth and prosperity, that Labour will never win another election ever etc, etc.

Such warnings  has become something of a political reflex in the world of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’, whose rulers secretly know that the future they have to offer their electorates is pretty grim, and that they can only maintain support by presenting themselves as the arbiters of the necessary evil. This is how you get people to willingly  to inhabit the land of TINA – There Is No Alternative – forever.  It’s how you persuade voters to elect a Tory government knowing that its cuts will inflict unprecedented damage on health and education and other things that these same voters care about.

So in these fearful times, it’s worth remembering that society cannot be changed by people who live in a state of fear, but only by those who have the courage to take the risks that are always involved when you challenge the status quo or seek alternatives to the dire prescriptions that seem to be emanating from so many governments.

It’s worth remembering the Greek Oxi vote, despite Syriza’s capitulation, when the Greek population faced down a barrage of threats and terrifying possibilitiesand said no.  Like Dennis Hopper, in Wim Wenders’s classic take on the Ripley novels, The American Friend, they recognized that ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself’.   Elsewhere in Europe, new movements are springing up to challenge the politics of austerity and its brutal consequences, who have reached the same conclusions.

And this summer, as the reaction to Jeremy Corbyn rises to new levels of hysteria and dire warnings of the consequences of a shift to the left in or out of the Labour Party,  we should remember that many of these prophets of doom are themselves afraid that one day the  people they seek to terrify into submission or grudging acceptance of the unacceptable may decide that austerity is not inevitable or tolerable, and  conclude  that even a modest step towards a different kind of future might just be a risk worth taking after all.


R.I.P Europe

I’ve just come back from a week’s hiking in the Pyrenees. When I left for the mountains I knew that the European Union was in poor health.  By the time I came down four days later it was dead.  The cause of death is open to question.   Was it a deliberate act of collective suicide?   Or an accidental death, inadvertently carried out by a cruel, fanatical and clueless leadership that was simply too blinkered, too stupid, and too abjectly submissive to the financial institutions that have inflicted such catastrophic ruin on so many countries to keep the Union alive?

Was it homicide-by-banker?  Or did the Union finally succumb to  a long illness, whose symptoms have been evident for some time?    Whichever the verdict, the Greek crisis is the catalyst that historians will one day analyse in their future post mortems.   But I can’t say I saw this coming.   On the contrary, the resounding Greek rejection of the Troika’s latest bailout package left me feeling moderately optimistic that the Oxi vote might galvanize Syriza and the European left in general to oppose the vicious fanaticism of Greece’s creditors and the malignant con trick called austerity.

If that happened, I naively thought, perhaps it might be possible to salvage the best of Europe from the corporate–bureaucratic-financial monster that it has become.  Of course the surprising decision to force Yanis Varoufakis’s resignation should have been a warning sign of Syriza’s intentions, but there was no time to take in its significance before I disappeared into the mountains.

So the news of Syriza’s total capitulation to the Troika when I came back came as a real shock.   I assumed that Varoufakis’s resignation was an – admittedly poor – negotiating ploy.  I didn’t anticipate that after these painful and insane last few months, Tsipras would simply surrender everything and more without even a fight.   Why did he even call a referendum if he wasn’t prepared to use it to wring, at the very least, some serious concessions during the negotiations?

I now realize, as Syriza has done,   that Greece’s creditors had no interest in negotiations. They wanted only the total surrender, humiliation and subjugation of the Greeks and their government.  They wanted to crush Syriza in order to deliver a wider lesson any other movement with a similar programme.  They wanted to use the Greek debt to turn Greece into yet another neoliberal social laboratory.    Disregarding the referendum completely, they were determined to drag the Greek population to the muddy pool and make them drink from in it, in order to impose an accept an economic model on the country that even the IMF admits is unsustainable.

There is a grim irony in the fact that Germany was the principal driving force behind this process – the same Germany that once wrecked Europe, that then had its debt wiped out and its economy generously reshaped in order to pave the way for the post-war ‘economic miracle’; the same Germany that made millions bribing Greek officials to buy weapons that Greece didn’t need, and which now presents itself as model of financial probity.

So it’s deutschland uber alles, except that Germany is not the only culprit, and would not have been able to behave like this had so many other governments not supported it.  All this left Syriza  caught between a rock and very hard place.  It had failed to prepare for the possibility of a Grexit, which in any case the referendum didn’t give it a mandate for. Without that option, it had nothing but moral pressure to bring to bear on governments and institutions that have now demonstrated that they are entirely resistant to any such pressures.

No good telling the Troika about democracy.   No point telling Greece’s creditors that their plans are a recipe for permanent recession and social ruin.  Don’t waste your breath talking to them about cruelty or solidarity.   Try and argue that if a soft-left formation like Syriza can’t find an alternative to austerity then the Golden Dawn fascists will pick up the mantle themselves and will use it for entirely different purposes.

These creditor-zealots can’t – or won’t hear any of this.   They don’t even realize that their deafness and blindness has killed the ‘Europe’ they claim to stand for. Of course, technically speaking, it isn’t dead.  The European Union still exists with all its institutions, and its representatives will stagger on like the walking dead, offering platitudes about progress, solidarity and ever closer union, as embittered and angry electorates across the continent turn to the likes of Jobbik, the National Front and Nigel Farage.

Governments and financial  elites will  still walk around in European clothes and sing emollient hallelujahs in praise of the eurozone.    But the idea of Europe is now dead, muerto, kaput, its remains splattered all over the Acropolis like the wreckage of a beautiful crashed aircraft.

To remind ourselves of what this idea once consisted of, consider these principles outlined in the  preamble to the  2005 European Constitution:

‘DRAWING INSPIRATION  from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which  have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person,freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law,

BELIEVING  that Europe, reunited after bitter experiences, intends to continue along the path of  civilisation, progress and prosperity, for the good of all its inhabitants, including the weakest and  most deprived; that it wishes to remain a continent open to culture, learning and social progress; and  that it wishes to deepen the democratic and transparent nature of its public life, and to strive for  peace, justice and solidarity throughout the world,

CONVINCED  that, while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of  Europe are determined to transcend their former divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a  common destiny,

CONVINCED  that, thus ‘United in diversity’,    Europe offers them the best chance of pursuing, with due  regard for the rights of each individual and in awareness of their responsibilities towards future  generations and the Earth, the great venture which makes of it a special area of human hope.’

Pretty, isn’t it?   Like drifting down the Danube listening to a Mozart symphony.   Now try to relate any of that to the brutal humiliation inflicted on Syriza and the Greek people over the last week.  Try to detect a smidgeon of evidence that the ‘bitter experiences’ of the past were brought to bear to help the ‘weakest and most deprived’ in Greece.  Show me how the Troika has acted in a spirit of justice and solidarity.    ‘A special area of human hope’? –  only to proponents of gallows humour. Democracy and transparency?  Enough now, you’re embarrassing yourself and no one is laughing.

Of course it wasn’t only Greece that wrecked these aspirations.  There were always contradictions between the nobler aspirations that drove the   European project and its actual practice; in the disastrously inept response of the EU to the wars in the former Yugoslavia; in the EU’s ruthless enforcement of its hardened anti-migrant borders and the massive death toll that it has engendered; in the EU’s reckless adventurism in Libya and Ukraine.

Despite all that, I believed that that European unity was a good idea, or at least that it contained the seed of of a much better one, and had the potential to become more than a ‘bosses club’, as some sectors of the left called it.   But now that Europe is gone – suffocated and trampled underfoot by the dim subjugation of  national governments and EU institutions to the merciless imperatives of debt-driven finance capital.

Such a Europe doesn’t deserve the support of anyone, but the constitutional preamble is a reminder of another Europe that does.

And despite everything, I can’t help mourning its loss, and I can’t help wondering that if the European Union couldn’t implement these principles, then who will?

Greece Says No

Yesterday’s astonishing referendum vote in Greece has left elite jaws dropping across the continent.  In the face of universal opposition from the powers-that-be across the continent and dire warnings that essentially amounted to ‘ do what we say or else’ Greek voters overwhelmingly rejected the Troika’s latest bailout package.

Well, technically they didn’t reject the package exactly, because in the confused circumstances that followed Syriza’s referendum decision last week, the Troika declared its latest bailout offer to be null and void, and Alex Tsipras appeared to have accepted it, albeit with preconditions.

Never mind, because Greeks knew what they were voting for and so did their creditors, who had made it plain that they weren’t happy with the Syriza government and wanted Greeks to dissolve it and elect another.  Everyone knew that if the referendum vote had gone the other way then Syriza would have resigned, and this was clearly the outcome Europe’s financial and political elites wanted, which was why they turned their backs on Tsipras’s last minute acceptance of their latest package.

Ever since Syriza was elected, the Troika has been determined to exact complete and unconditional surrender from Tsipras’s government because it fears that anything less would encourage other countries to question the disaster capitalism in drag that goes by the name of austerity.

Greece’s creditors may not have wanted a referendum, but their behavior last week made it clear that they also saw it as a potential opportunity to ditch Syriza and get a compliant technocratic government in power that would do their bidding without fuss.   To press the point home, Greeks were presented with the same dread prospect of empty banks and ATM machines that were once used to justify the recapitalization of the banking system when the global financial crisis first broke.

Yet astonishingly, even in these fearful and ultra-conservative times, when electorates across the continent prefer to cling onto the boot that kicks them because they are terrified that the alternative would be worse, Greece refused to acquiesce in the face of shamefully undemocratic blackmail.

Told effectively  to change your government or face bankruptcy, economic collapse, and expulsion from Europe, the Greeks voted no by an overwhelming margin.  And they were last night, dancing in the streets and public squares even as they stared down into what remains a very dark tunnel.   Why did they do this?  Are they mad, these southern Europeans,  in rejecting the ‘common sense’ imposed upon them by their sober northern creditors and the sour-faced disciples of TINA (There Is No Alternative)?  Are they suffering from an attack of mass psychosis?

Well no.  They were dancing because they had stood up to the blinkered financial thuggery that has ripped their society to shreds.   They were dancing because they had reached the conclusion that sometimes collective defiance – regardless of the risks – is preferable to endless humiliation, despair and ruin.   They were dancing because they had demonstrated a level of real political courage that has been so sorely lacking in so many countries during these grim years, and brave decisions are always more invigorating than fear and submission.

They were dancing because they had asserted their democratic right to choose a government that represented what they saw as their best interests rather than a government that recommended the interests of the Troika and the promoters of the disaster-capitalism-in-drag that we call austerity.

Of course this victory opens the way to all kinds of unforeseen possibilities.   The resignation of Yanis Varoufakis already demonstrates that Syriza’s own defiance has its limits.  The Troika may now accept Syriza’s conditions or Tsipras might demand more.   Greece may be cast adrift and expelled from the eurozone, or simply allowed to drift away from it.  If that happens, Greece may face a crisis even more severe than the one that has already wrought such havoc if it reintroduces the drachma, at least in the short-term.

As of this morning, no one knows how any of this will pan out.   But yesterday, the Greek people found itself and spoke with its own voice.   And now, faced with the refusal of the Greeks to dissolve its government, the powers–that-be can only either try and dissolve the Greek people itself, as Brecht once put it in a different context, or they can engage in open confrontation with a broad national consensus that is no longer restricted to the ‘far left’ government that the Troika tried to humiliate.

No wonder the Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijssebloem has described the result as ‘very regrettable for the future of Greece.’  German Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel yesterday accused the Tsipras government of taking Greece down a path of ‘bitter abandonment and hopelessness.’

Well if yesterday’s celebrations were what bitterness and hopelessness look like, then there are many other people in Europe who might want some of it too.   And they might even conclude, like the Greeks, that sometimes a leap into the unknown is preferable to a fearful, debt-enforced future of endless austerity,  and that sometimes, if you stand up to the powerful, you can actually win.