The mass pro-democratic movement referred to as the “Arab Spring” has become a nightmare for millions of citizens in the Middle East and North Africa and has once again destabilized a traditionally volatile region.
In the past, authoritarian regimes in this region upheld a certain stability and cohesion to have their illegitimacy sustained (like in Libya or Syria), while dictators relied on the support of the United States and other Western governments in unmasked economic exploitation and political oppression (like in Egypt or Tunisia). The Arab Spring rightly swept away these regimes and dictators, yet also resulted in confusion and chaos, acute economic crisis due to the privatization and financialization pressures of globalizing capital and civil unrest or outright war. While citizens of these countries await the promised freedom and prosperity by Western instigators of change, priority has been given to the unbridled invasion of neoliberal capitalism.
Many societies involved in the Arab Spring are already beginning to dissolve or have become a site of a new “Cold War,” as in the case of Syria. Consequently, for millions of citizens, basic existence has become politically or economically unbearable. The seemingly unstoppable exodus of refugees reaching Europe look to the richest EU countries – especially Germany – as the Promised Land where supposedly opportunities abound once their lives are secured.
Let us keep in mind however, that despite the hollowing praise of democracy and unity in diversity, the post-War European integration process was meant primarily to serve the United States’ Cold War agenda and to perpetuate the might of dissolving European overseas empires. We are about to see if the European Union can live up to its self-image of a “good” empire that came into being under the guidance of the United States and was co-opted by political and economic elites of the continent without informed popular consent.
There are no good empires and Europe is no exception; indeed, Europe is once again failing to pass this test, just as it failed with the first great wave of territorial expansion that was actually re-colonization of post-Communist Central and Eastern European states from the early 1990s on. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was celebrated as “the end of history,” while it actually brought about at least two different and much more palpable ends: (a)
The balance of powers as the only guarantee of lasting peace in Europe was lost to the German unification; and (b) the lack of a viable alternative to neoliberal capitalism eroded the welfare state, not only in post-Communist Europe, but in the West as well, weakening labor unions, undermining workers’ rights and compromising public services.
Eastern European states had let themselves be recolonized via the same promise of freedom, equality and prosperity that motivated the Arab Spring uprisings. Twenty years later, the former Communist welfare states have turned into intolerant neoconservative warfare states waging austerity wars on their own citizens, and more so on all the “Others” in the name of capital. The free flow of everything is the main mantra of the current paradigm, yet the only thing flowing freely at the expense of all else, is capital.
The general disillusionment with the initial promises might have become dangerous to the empire. A wave of protests across Europe following the Arab Spring, and more recently, the Grexit crisis, demonstrated that threat. However, the outer rim of the European Union now has more pressing worries: the refugees, portrayed as incompatibly foreign “Others,” have been imposed on the post-Communist EU societies as the newest “enemy.”
Skillfully manipulated by mass media, the recolonized Central and Eastern Europeans turn their disenchanted eyes away from their real enemy: the corporations, the banks, the 1%.
Once again in European history, an imminent class issue is being diverted into an ethnic/religious/cultural issue by the imperial “divide and reign” maneuver that further weakens the resistance to precarization, financialization and repressive control of impoverished and atomized societies within fortress Europe. Like in the time of expansion of the Ottoman Empire, Europe’s southeastern periphery is once again being forced to turn into a buffer zone to fend off the worn-off “archenemy,” Islam. The periphery is once again doing the dirty work for the ruling core.
Meanwhile, refugees, educated in their home countries, now serve the demographic agenda of the European empire. They are used as tools to ratchet up the pressure on labor costs, creating yet more tension within the majority of EU population. Corporations no longer need to outsource jobs, or relocate – cheap and skilled labor is now showing up at their doorstep, in Europe itself.
For too many people, it has so far been easier to fall into the propaganda trap of othering the refugees displaced by Western powers and neoliberal financialization, rather than rediscover solidarity with them. And yet, refugees are also the “Us” of the 99%. Considering the fact that more than 500 million Europeans may expect about a million refugees this year, we are still far from any actual refugee “crisis” in Europe; the only crisis here may be that potentially faced by the politico-capitalist complex, if this leads to reinforcement of European demos.
We, especially on the European periphery, should reject the way the refugee situation has been manipulated by the 1%. We should resist falling into the trap of inter-cultural distrust. Multiculturalism is dead only to those who intended for it to delay class war in the first place. We should refuse to be so easily and handily divided over the false threat of refugees taking over our remaining jobs and crumbs of security we have left. Instead, we should welcome the refugees for they may inflate the numbers of the 99% when necessary.
In academic circles, the Arab Spring is meticulously analyzed and interpreted and intellectually stored, a certain sign that it has been relegated to a manageable past. Yet all actions have consequences. With the present exodus to Europe, the Arab Fall has started, presenting the West with a check for not just the Arab Spring, but accumulated centuries of arrogant exploitation. As a consequence, to paraphrase the “Game of Thrones,” the European winter may be coming.
Slavoj Žižek, Living In End Times. Verso, 2011.
Asbjorn Wahl, The Rise and Fall Of the Welfare State. Pluto Books, 2011.
Boštjan Videmšek, The Uprising: the Arab Spring and the European Fall. Mladinska Knjiga, 2013 (in Slovenian)