“Even a Diogenes has the right to a barrel…” (Bruno Latour, from ‘Down to Earth – Politics in the New Climatic Regime’)
“I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame…I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.” (Hilary Clinton, November 2018)
“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated.” (George Orwell, from 1984)
Two articles occupied the front page of The Guardian on Saturday December 29th (alongside a picture of Twiggy…). “Councils pay for rough sleepers to leave town”, the first of these announced (or muttered…you could tell it had been tricky to strike the right note…). 83 councils had purchased 6810 travel vouchers for purposes of ‘reconnecting’ street homeless people to their ‘areas of origin’. Local authorities said the policy was pursued on a voluntary basis only – rough sleepers felt they had no choice and reported being sent places they had never been before.
‘Experts’ apparently ‘advised’ that “without support and accommodation, the policy does not resolve homelessness, but moves it to another area”.
Well, yup, o experts, that is indeed pretty much the nub of it.
The second piece bore this headline: “[Sajid] Javid declares migrant boats a ‘major incident'”. 106 ‘migrants’, many of them reported to be Iranian, had been detained in the Channel since Christmas Day and the Home Secretary had curtailed his Christmas holiday in South Africa.
This was not (you might fondly have imagined) to make sure there was ‘room at the Inn’ for these desperate wayfarers, but rather to appoint a ‘gold commander’ (take that, annoying unwanted ‘economic migrants’!) to deal with the growing crisis (ie get them back across the Channel and deter them and others from attempting the crossing) and to ask the French interior minister Christophe Castaner for an urgent (pre-Brexit?) chat about the situation.
On New Year’s Day it was announced that two extra Border Force cutters would be deployed pour décourager les autres. Javid made various noises about the nautical perils involved in the crossing and then got to the point he is there for: “I want to send a very strong signal to people who do think about making this journey – we will do everything we can to make sure it is not a success, in the sense that I don’t want people to think that if they leave a safe country like France that they can get to Britain and just get to stay … our job here is to make sure this doesn’t turn into a new route for ever-increased illegal migration [note: migration is not illegal!], so I want to stop it now as much as I possibly can.”
It was thus clear that the cutters had been deployed because the treacherous waters of the English Channel were no longer doing their job of being the ‘Border Force’ well enough.
These two stories are connected by underlying individual and collective tragedies in human lives and indeed it is striking how little sense of tragedy gets communicated in the news stories or in the responses of the various authorities. But the particular point I want to pick up here is that in both stories, the responses of the authorities are located in a deeply-rooted piece of system or societal doublethink.
This doublethink is contained not only in the idea, common to policymakers in both stories, that there might be ‘somewhere else’ for displaced people to go – it is also inherent in the idea that there are people in these stories who somehow or other are not displaced.
The housed are still constructing themselves as the housed in relation to an outgroup who are unhoused and feeling better about, more securely housed in their housedness, as they always have done. At the level of the nation state, this is located in the idea of a border, over which the nation state has control and therefore the final say on who can cross the border and who must stay outside – or, to put it the other way round, who can stay inside the border and who must leave. At the level of the borough council, it is this idea that drives the policy of paying to send rough sleepers ‘somewhere else’.
This idea of a controlled border was never an absolute truth but we could perhaps nonetheless think of this as the defining construct of the Holocene age – that age of relative climatic stability that for ten millennia has framed and enabled that phenomenon we call ‘human civilisation’ – that age which eventuated and reached its dénouement, over the last three hundred of those ten thousand years, in the Enlightenment, the Age of Empire, the Industrial Revolution and the great drive of carbon-fuelled capitalism towards what Latour argues was the chimerical horizon of ‘globalisation’.
In the Anthropocene age now upon us – the age in which human beings are understood to be the main agents acting upon the climate and in which, perhaps more importantly, the climate – the behaviour of the Earth – is understood to be the main agent acting upon humankind’s chances of survival – in the Anthropocene, this idea no longer has any ground left to hold. Carbon particles observe no boundaries.
Here is Latour again, worth quoting at some length:
“Most of our fellow citizens…understand perfectly well that the question of migrants puts their dreams of a secure identity in danger…The climate crisis is forcing people they do not welcome to cross their frontiers; hence the response: ‘Let’s put up impenetrable borders and we’ll escape from the invasion!’
But…the New Climatic Regime has been sweeping across all our borders for a long time, exposing us to all the winds, and no walls we can build will keep these invaders out.
If we want to defend our affiliations, we shall have to identify these migrations also, migrations without form or nation that we know as climate, erosion, pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction. Even if you seal the frontiers against two-legged refugees, you cannot prevent these others from crossing over.
‘But then is no one at home any longer?’
No, as a matter of fact. Neither State sovereignty nor inviolable borders can take the place of politics any longer.”
So then: welcome to 2019, and Fortress Britain, the ‘armed lifeboat’ with its Border Force and its threats and posturing, battening down the hatches and affecting not to worry who gets caught in the incoming hurricane. It would seem that the British government is of a mind with Hilary Clinton in her finding that the lesson to be drawn from the rise of populism is that Europe should have been less hospitable to climate change refugees (for this is what ‘they’ are…).
And this of course is the whole point of Brexit, right? Climate migrants are understood to be a plague, and Brexit the quarantine strategy. ‘Bad luck, our erstwhile European friends, but you’re already contaminated and there’s no saving you now. So long – it’s been real, but we gotta go…’
When the Referendum was first called, I believed that the case for Remain lay squarely in the necessity of maintaining solidarity with the European project that had bound together the major Powers since the post-WW2 reconstruction – that George Steiner’s Europe was a Europe worth preserving. In the wake of the vote and the accelerating disarray of the last year, I became convinced that the central issue and the overwhelming argument for Remain was the Irish Border and the honouring of the post-imperial compact that had brought a tenuous but creative peace to those troubled lands.
But it’s now clear to me that I have been underestimating the catastrophic consequences of Brexit. Brexit is nothing more or less than a desperate flailing and utterly doomed exercise in climate denial and doublethink. If Britain (and indeed the rest of the English-speaking world) pursues the ‘logic’ of Brexit and fixes machine guns to the rails of the lifeboat rather than distributing lifebelts, the waters will rise and consume us all.
The last word goes to Fred, a voice of reason on the streets of Dover, reported in the follow-up to the ‘lifeboat crisis’ story we began with.
Numerous voices complained that the wrecked lifeboat was an eyesore and that the desperate travellers were ‘economic migrants’ and ‘benefits scroungers’. Now, this is the language our masters and our media have promulgated and it’s not for me to judge people for their fearful responses to the incoming storm. But here’s Fred, and he has a point to make that I think we all urgently need to grasp and understand and take on board:
“If we were in a similar situation, from a war-torn country and trying to make a better life for ourselves, we would do the same thing…But people don’t think about that. In a way, we are all migrants…”
For factual correction of official and media commentary on the crossings, see this from the Refugee Council: https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/latest/blogs/5459_channel_crossings_-_time_to_set_the_record_straight?fbclid=IwAR203v_yObIJG_fUXjilkZl-iJPu2lNEM0YEzQOZV19WakTTJW9smwCOxYI
Latour, B. (2018) Down to Earth – Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity.
Orwell, G. (1949) 1984. London: Penguin Modern Classics.
Steiner, G. (2015) The Idea of Europe. London: Overlook Duckworth.