‘Ihre Papiere bitte’?

I’m planning a very nice trip to Corfu. Its a funny old world where I can contemplate this and ‘worry’ only if the wine will be chilled enough. It again reminds me that this could be what it was like for the middle class in England in the 1930’s, blissfully unaware of the dark ages to come. The lights had yet to go out across Europe but the signs were there. Given yet again the grievous dismissal of the plight of many people as being that of a ‘bunch of migrants‘, the painting of red doors and the wearing of red wrist bands, a tide of fascist discourse and activity worries me. Our moral universe is in the process of being warped. Victims are classed as perpetrators, words are used as weapons, humans are stripped of their humanity and discussed in terms of ‘swarms’, ‘bunch’ or ‘vermin‘. An authoritarian, misogynistic, homophobic, monarchy is supported in its war, while arms industries flourish, and our chief moral concerns would be loss of jobs in the industries that plan for mega death.

On a positive note, I billion people have been taken out of extreme poverty in 20 years, Steven Pinker suggests the overall level of world violence is reducing, while Matt Ridley argues our abilities to trade result in progress. His optimism is based on this belief, but he adds that trade can only occur when we trust. It might be that the left only sees the darkness while the right focuses on the light. Both views don’t accept the complexity.

Yet, the very real gains of the world can be cut down in a moment. I guess the Austro-Hungarians, British Victorians and the French of ‘La Belle Epoque’ in 1914 realised how ‘progress’ sits on shifting ground. A warped moral order and the population’s inability to think cost Europe dear. Don’t be fooled again. You don’t have to wear a brown shirt to think and talk like a fascist.

Europe has form in this regard, Britain is not immune.

Hannah Arendt in her examination of the moral collapse that led to the Holocaust referred to ‘thoughtlessness’. The point Arendt tried to make in her book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem‘ was that nazi bureaucrats like Eichmann, and of course many non nazis, were not demonic or especially evil. The german state under Hitler warped the moral order and inverted concepts, so that people did not think “this is horrible, having to shoot jews” instead they thought “it is our historical duty to do this, it is horrible what I have to do (shooting jews) but it is part of our destiny, our history being written now”, and thus feelings could be nullified with reason to the State’s new moral order.

I fear that what we have now in the UK is a slow turning of the moral order, so that which is inhuman becomes acceptable. Europe’s moral collapse in the 20th century has only partly been repaired by the European project that is the EU. The seeds of that collapse produced  the bloodied red flowers of the Somme and later the black hearts and shirts of fascists. Both blooms have been cut down, but one wonders if the roots that produced them may not allow another to flourish?

Arendt’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism‘ (1951) described three linked phenomena: Imperialism involving mass bureaucratised murder based on racist ideology; dissolution of the european class system resulting in a mass of ‘superfluous individuals’ who could be co-opted into a totalitarian regime; a decline of european nation states manifest as ‘nationalism‘ which when confronted by refugees and ethnic minorities warped into a lethal mix of pseudoscience and ethnic fantasy (Luban 2011).

When nations can declare entire ‘races’ or ethnicities (or religions) as mortal enemies then a foundation of humanity falls – i.e. the notion that we share a common humanity. This is then replaced by ‘us and them’, friend and enemy’ and the destruction of the enemy becomes the ultimate meaning of politics.  This then paves the way for the collapse of a moral order as we currently understand it, as the population becomes mobilized to confront the threat. It is the inversion of normal rules,  that nations who feel under threat undertake, that is dangerous and that allows ‘normal’ people to act inhumanely.

I suspect that racist ideology never fully went away, and is now gaining confidence to say its name in public; I suspect that industrialisation, technological development (Industrial revolution 4.0) and globalisation is producing a mass of superfluous, disaffected, disengaged, individuals and I suspect refugees and migrants are again confronting fears about nationhood. Islamists are fuelling that fear,  while western media and politicians fan the flames. We may be moving rapidly towards the destruction of IS being the ultimate goal of politics with the perhaps unintended consequences of reigniting european fears and fascism. Schengen may go  and the Dutch may once again hear “Ihre Papiere bitte” as they go though re-erected border controls.

Arendt wrote:

“Just as you (Eichmann) supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason you must hang” (Arendt 1964 p 279).

Putting aside arguments around capital punishment, it is the ‘othering’, the dehumanising, that is dangerous. We have to remember that the ‘final solution’ followed on from the first solution (concentration) and the second (deportation) solution. “I just want to send the lot back, but I can’t say that” is a call for the second solution. The jungle resembles the first solution.  The solution to IS may also involve unleashing dirty nationalistic forces as all muslims become the ‘other’, feared non humans who should be barred from international travel.

Allport on ‘prejudice’ is useful here, the first stage is ‘antilocution‘ – using jokes and words to dehumanise the ‘other’. We may already be moving towards ‘avoidance’ and ‘discrimination’. There is increasing evidence of ‘physical attacks‘ and so all we have left to go is the last stage ‘extermination’ or physical removal. Groups such as Britain First are merely the visible face of fascist thinking, how long before we see supporters roaming the streets acting in quasi vigilante roles protecting white christians?

It is ironic in the UK that we are making a big fuss over the release of the film ‘Dad’s Army’ – a story of Britain’s possible last stand against fascism – just at the same time as certain commentators and politicians are scapegoating migrants for the consequences of globalisation, imperialism and capitalism.