Pessimistic reflections on the ‘migration crisis’

The enormous riches which this rascal had stolen were sunk beside him in the sea, and nothing was saved but a single sheep.

—You see, said Candide to Martin, crime is punished sometimes; this scoundrel of a Dutch merchant has met the fate he deserved.

—Yes, said Martin; but did the passengers aboard his ship have to perish too?

God punished the scoundrel, the devil drowned the others. – Voltaire, Candide

A reading of Georges Sorel’s infamous Reflections on Violence quickly submerged me in the metaphysics of pessimism once more. Reading it reminded me of the sickening honesty of pessimism. How it speaks openly about tragedy and struggle – often without the hollywood ending we’ve been indoctrinated to expect – and set me thinking on the violence now being inflicted on migrants from Calais to Manus.

Pessimism is not resignation in the face of what appear to be insurmountable obstacles, but a recognition of the totality of their strength, and a conviction in the collective struggle required to overcome them. But unlike other critical perspectives, pessimism gives no indication that this deliverance is assured. Only the profound insight that struggle against absurdity is itself a worthy endeavor.

This is why pessimism is often wrongly equated with futility. But upon closer inspection we find that futility lives in the empty rhetoric of the optimist who promises to bring resolution to a crisis. A crisis which is more often than not of their own creation. When, for example, the European Union first cuts funding to rescue missions in the mediterranean in deference to austerity, only to later triple funding after the ‘problem’ has become unbearably worse – both decisions can be said to have been made in the name of resolving a crisis – even though neither do much to end the suffering or abuse of the migrant. To a great extent, western society has surrendered itself to this peculiar kind of fatalism -which masquerades as progress- and in so doing, has permitted the endless justification of atrocity.

“Pessimism is quite a different thing from the caricatures of it which are usually presented to us; it is a philosophy of conduct rather than a theory of the world; it considers the march towards deliverance as narrowly conditioned, on the one hand, by the experimental knowledge that we have acquired from the obstacles which oppose themselves to the satisfaction of our imaginations (or, if we like, by the feeling of social determinism), and, on the other, by a profound conviction of our natural weakness.”

It is hard to look at the atrocities now being committed and not be attracted to a metaphysics that makes us honestly reflect on our own barbarity. That demands us to reflect on our collective weakness in the face of a great evil being committed against an even greater number of stateless, dispossessed, and desolate persons; and that questions our own complicity in the crimes committed.

An encounter with the philosophy of pessimism, then, is not the same as resignation to the status quo. On the contrary, it is the conviction that “crushing truths perish from being acknowledged…It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.”

To paraphrase Voltaire – it is taking the devil out of the equation. When migrants drown in the mediterranean, it is not the fault of some shabby boat, or miserable weather. It is the fault of men failing to act, often, by design. As Anna Caroli aptly put it, “a perceived impotence is derived from the semantic labelling of these tragedies as, accidents.” When “in fact, an accident cannot be prevented, but only dealt with symptomatically.”

In this view, the ‘migration crisis’ is only a crisis in so far as it is made into one. And any honest effort to discuss it must be done so from this simple premise. A crisis must be created, either through ignorance, or by design. It is permissible, only through the inaction and quiet acceptance of the many, at the expense of the few.

Acceptance is not taken here as a moral question. It is the absence of struggle and willingness submit one’s reason to the inevitable logic of some mythical force ‘out there’ even though no such inevitable force exists. Yet crisis depends on a fatalistic faith in the invisible – and this faith is something that many, if not most, willingly submit to.

We are duped into acting under the misguided assumption that devout belief in the invisible – whether its the invisible hand of the ‘market’ or belief that making the migrant  invisible by the hand of power – is the key to preserving whatever shred of privilege we have left. Duped into believing that a few hungry people who have been systematically deprived of their livelihood, and who’s very humanity is  consistently questioned if not taken outright, have the power (and the will) to destroy the utopian dream of a united Europe.

But it is not the poor and the downtrodden that erect walls. Or who call for referendums on its dissolution. It is not the hungry and the desperate that deprive society of its material well-being. Or threaten to bring financial ruin. Much less, do they build detention centers to imprison themselves. Or demand excessive privileges that threaten the welfare of those who happened to come before. Neither are migrants some geopolitical weapon being wielded by a treacherous mastermind. Migrants are not the threat.

No. The wretched are, and always have been, a wonderful distraction for, and source of, power.

In this case, power is embodied in the union (perhaps a cartel is a better word) of financiers and politicians who find themselves beset by contradictions of their own making, with no clear path to resolution that does not involve relinquishing some amount of wealth and control. A cartel that is simultaneously dependent on replenishing a dwindling pool of labor, and attacking laborers in order to sustain profitability.  Migrants are an easy target to turn to, to resolve this incoherence – especially when the threat of rising class consciousness means that indulging in the myth of nationalism and xenophobia is the surest way to stay in office.

Just as the economic ‘crisis’ was not the inevitable outcome of market forces governed by some ‘natural law,’ but brought on upon the world economy by the collective will of bankers and governments who benefited handsomely from the short-term rewards of casino capitalism – so too, is the ‘migration crisis’ a man made phenomenon. And neither will it end until the authority that constructed it is systematically dismantled.

The causes of displacement are many. Steeped in a long history of exploitation and military intervention – from colonialism, to present day neoliberalism, and imperial forays into Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere. But the ‘crisis’ is not made by the movement of people from one place to another. Displacement and movement are not crisis.

Crisis is the political decision to cut funding to search and rescue missions in the name of austerity, only to reverse that decision when it becomes obvious that a military response could provide a better ‘deterrent.’ Crisis is the decision to invest 3 billion euro in a tyrant, as some kind of (reprehensible) moral downpayment against sins of our own making. Only  a profoundly fatalistic society can make progress take the form of a bribe or prioritize tourism ahead of refuge.

Crisis, then, requires the marshaling of significant resources in the service of power and the violent repression of those who challenge its invisible ‘logic.’ This cannot be the outcome of a ‘natural’ process, but only that of a concerted political project of exclusion. It turns something natural and human – that is, the will of survival and the desire of self-betterment – into a crime.  While turning something unnatural – that is, the bordering of space into neatly ordered and monitored territorial blocs of exclusion and the denial of basic goods and services to those desperately in need – into ‘good policy.’

In my view, migration is a constant struggle against this project. While crisis, only becomes ‘crisis’, in so far as it is a crisis of power, forced to reveal its contradictory, if often invisible, foundations.

Some have claimed that the European Union is under threat of collapse from the migration crisis. If you were operating under the assumption that the European Union represented some kind of utopian project, then I would tend to agree. For those who’s sentimental delusion has been disrupted, their European Union has already collapsed. But from the perspective of a pessimist, this utopian ideal was never more than a distraction to begin with – a dreadful optimism that promised a hollywood ending before the violent plot was given a chance to reveal itself. For many this plot is a reality borne out of daily struggle. For others, it is still hidden by the optimist’s cries of progress.


Sorel’s formation of pessimism is often said to be ‘deeply disturbing,’ because it advocates a certain kind of proletarian violence directed at power. I’m undecided on the question – constantly wavering between a personal dedication to non-violence and yet struggling to come to terms with how to confront a society that produces violence on an industrial scale and actively uses it as an instrument of oppression. Either way I think people all too often cast aside some the insights that pessimism has to offer due to this reputation.



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