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Exploiting the Barbarians


Perhaps the most pointing allegory of unfreedom in liberal thought is the one that depicts the chained, immobilized body of a slave. The allegory of the chained slave simultaneously positions the “free” subject as a moving, mobile subject. In a similar manner, one of the main principles behind the implementation of the ‘European project’ – freedom of movement – contains in itself the ideologically loaded concept of freedom on the one hand and the idea that movement is constitutive of freedom on the other.

Bulgaria is a country at the ‘European’ edge where the dialectic between the so-called ‘fortress Europe’ (the fortification against those rendered outside intruders) and ‘freedom of movement’ is frequently played out. With Bulgaria’s accession into the European Union in 2007, the country became an external border of the Union and thus, a gatekeeper against the so-called third-country-nationals (TCN) who attempt to subvert the imposed border controls in order to reach “Europe.” In addition however, the country became also an exit for the thousands of Bulgarian emigrants, enabled by the European value of freedom of movement, who travel to the “West” in order to better their life conditions. Bulgaria’s ambivalent status neither of a country that is inside, nor outside the European “family” is perhaps best exemplified by the recent debates surrounding the country’s im/possibility to join the Schengen zone and the increased threats posed by countries such as Germany that stricter control needs to be implemented in regard to outward movement from Bulgaria. Movement and social benefits, both of EU citizens and TCNs, is what drives these discussions forward. The recent debates over migration in Europe have obtained the language of obligation and abuse: the obligation of the poorer member states to keep both their deprived and those who cross onto “European” space inside their borders and to oppose those who abuse the principle of freedom of movement. In the German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich’s words, “The right to freedom of movement means that every EU citizen can live in every member state, if they are working or studying there. Any EU citizen who fulfills these criteria is welcome here. But whoever is only coming to cash in on state benefits, and is therefore abusing this freedom of movement, needs to be meaningfully prevented.” In the same article, Friedrich warns the Bulgarian authorities that its impossibility to prevent the migration of TCN towards Germany will result in Bulgaria’s eternal impossibility to be accessed in Schengen. Schengen has become the political spectacle that unfolds in Europe.

The larger political framework overriding the European Union and in particular Europe’s regime of movement control which regulates both “legal” and “illegal” migration is well exemplified in Bulgaria. The continuous attempts by western European elites to tame the movement of TCNs and to restrict their presence to the “edge of Europe,” but also the recent attempts to (re)impose mobility control over Bulgarian citizens are certainly internalized in the political debates in the country both as exemplified in the recent talks about “refugee tsunami” and when protestors and  intellectual figures apologetically speak of Bulgarian emigration.

The unrealized meaning of the “refugee wave,” as trapped in past utterances and attempts to gain political support for the accession in the Schengen zone, eventually realized itself in a fully fledged Front against those who venture onto the Bulgarian-Turkish border because of the unfolding crisis in Syria. In a repentant tone, Tsvetelin Iovchev, Minister of Interior, warned the Bulgarian public that the country could expect around 10,000 Syrian refugees until the end of 2013. As soon as the phantom number was uttered he firmly continued speaking of possibilities to increase border control to “almost 100 percent,”  “to seal the border,” and to increase measures against potential terrorism. Control, seal, terrorism! Let’s not forget the threat to the “native” labor market. Frankly, nothing new in the painfully known articulation of what an asylum-seeker entails. The European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, Kristalina Georgieva on the other hand rushed into performing her humanitarian duties and attempted to calm the already panicked crowd that “we cannot speak of a refugee wave in Bulgaria.” She urged that “85% [of those asylum-seekers] are women and children” and that it is our sense of duty to treat them in a humanitarian way. Just like that the refugee figure was comfortably settled into her usual role: somewhere in between the image of the Evil Overlord and the childlike victim par excellence.

The other Front, which battles the Bulgarian and Romanian labor migrants, as found in the west, proves to be no different. Just a few days ago, according to a poll in the Netherlands, 73% of the “natives” disapprove of further opening the labor market to their fellow EU citizens coming from the lands of Bulgaria and Romania. Hirt Vilders rushed into commenting that in this case the borders of these two countries need be sealed, not much different than the paranoia that drives Cameron’s own discourse. Similarly, the Bavarian Hans Peter Uhl, urged for strict measures against the exploiters, the “organized crime” that sends the cheap Bulgarian labor towards Germany but compassionately added that these laborers are just “unfortunate poor people” who deserve protection. Recently, large attention has been paid to slaughter houses in Germany, where Bulgarian and Romanian citizens work for low wages and under unforgivable conditions. What usually comes out in the media is an image of the Bulgarian labor migrant whose condition is used to rebuke the instances of “modern day slavery.” The latter discourse however, even though rich in political rhetoric, represents a moralizing dystopian perception of the world, as if labor mobility is not linked to structural necessities in modern day capitalism but depicts a world where we somehow still live under feudal social relation. As if, the large outward migration from Bulgaria after 1990 is not due to structural changes in the economy such as privatization, deep deindustrialization and consequent loss of elementary labor protection but by some perceived and romanticized desire to “travel abroad.”  And again, the subjectivation of the labor migrant, just like the one of the refugee, is swinging in the dialectic of the demon threat and a fallen victim to “unfair” employment practices.

What is crystal clear in the seemingly unfolding battle against mobility is in all actuality not an attempted sealing of borders (which is in itself an oxymoron) but that “free” movement necessarily comes with a hidden condition. In the case of Bulgarian labor, this condition is exemplified in the proposition that we are welcomed when we work and study but not when we seek security from the anyways falling welfare state. When it comes to the so-called asylum-seekers, the condition is that these subjects do not get advantage of work permits and their existence is limited to the ridiculous social aid of 33€ (in the case of Bulgaria). But moreover, the asylum-seeker needs to answer to our perception of her: agency-less victim, trained to be such from the very crossing of a border. In fact a subject who is immobilized both socially and physically due to European regulations[1]. What is hardly spoken about is the importance of mobility control and borders in contemporary class struggles, where the migrant subject is organized for exploitation. The left needs to go beyond the depoliticizing and ahistorisizing language of humanitarianism and strive towards firm appropriation of mobility struggles into our own structures and battles. Humanitarianism (and arguably human rights talks) further deepens their class position and perpetuates hierarchization. Certainly, to see refugees as mere victims and not as bearers of labor power is to lead us nowhere. At the same time, to let wandering “EU migrants” outside our critique of capitalist structures is to deny the possibility to radically transform existing institutions. The migrant subject is not a mere excess that contaminates “class peace” as some reactionary forces would like us to believe.  In order to strongly oppose the latter we first need to go beyond and destroy binaries such as political/economic; legal/illegal migrant; citizen/non-citizen as established by long historic unfolding of liberal ideologies.

[1] In Bulgaria people hardly know of directives such as Dublin II (now Dublin III) which prohibit further movement into the European space for people who have been once caught at their “first-entry-country.”

By Raia Apostolova

Raia Apostolova is from Sofia and a Ph.D. student at the Central European University, Budapest.

2 replies on “Exploiting the Barbarians”

Excellent points made.
Most countries in North-Western Europe remain inimical to anything that creeps in from EU’s expanding south-eastern borders (and what lurks beyond them is even worse, of course). Fact is, as long as capitalist, neoliberal, dehumanizing structures and practices are in place (and the EU is operating within them, with its own high standards and all), the need for victims, slaves, barbarians and general welfare-spoilers will have its purpose. The paradigm linking political stability to the triumph of capital is being stretched to a breaking point. People should seek and forge alternative solidarity on the fringes of this money-based “European model” which in practice leads to exclusion, inequality, disintegration.
Just a note: the name of the Dutch politician is spelled Geert Wilders.

Excellent and surely we need to go beyond “neutral” humanitarianism. Let me stress that not only public discourses hide the historical-structural conditions on macro and lower levels, but also large sections of the sociologists working on these issues. They constantly try to ridicule historical structuralist positions and look for approaches which completely seal off people from their key social relations and put them into categories, into real social vacuums (they try to maximize their human capital etc.). Furthermore let me point out that mistakenly not social relations are regulated by various actors, but people themselves (citizenship etc.). Which is a nonsense. Let us talk about global work, global classes instead of migrants, who are very diverse accordingly.

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