Thursday 1 October 2020

On Cruelty

On Wednesday, it was reported how Priti Patel mulled the possibility of opening an asylum seeker processing centre on Ascension Island. Situated ver 4,000 miles from the British Isles in the south-mid Atlantic, a more remote and inhospitable a place is seldom conceived. This is par the course for our disgusting Home Secretary. Always keen to play to the Tory base to advance her career, no amount of suffering, no amount of people thrown under the bus (or off boats) can stay her will to power. We've discussed her happiness to bathe in the gutter enough. I'm interested in something altogether more grotesque.

According to a vox pop published by YouGov on Wednesday, 40% of those polled supported the idea of an Ascension Island scheme, with just 35% opposed. 25% were don't knows. It was by far and away most popular among Tory party supporters (62% versus 21%) whereas for Labour and the Liberal Democrat voters it was 22/51 and 24/53 respectively. And as for the age splits, if you've spent any time reading this blog's commentary on ageing and politics, you can anticate the outcome: the older the respondent, the more attractive the idea appears. When the tide of filth comes in, large numbers of our fellow citizens leap on their boards and surf the wave. Sobering.

There's no pussy footing around this. The desire to see people suffer is popular. Cruelty is ingrained and enthusiastically embraced. Unfortunately, it can't be purged by statsplaining the meagre public funds allocated to asylum claimants, nor quibbling about the cost of shipping people back and forth across the Atlantic. And it certainly won't be stopped by pandering to the "genuine concerns" primed by decades of xenophobic and hateful coverage. Cultivated by the media and reinforced by political rhetoric cruelty certainly is, but its goes deeper than discursive influences, brash ideologies, and paid propagandists.

People believe what they believe not because they're dupes or they're stupid. It's because all our ideas about the world and our place chime with our experiences of it. Social being conditions consciousness goes the old saying, and it's obviously true. If people come into contact with a set of circumstances they have ideas about but not experienced before, their ideas, more often than not, swiftly change to accommodate the new reality. How many peeople, for instance, are re-evaluating their notions of what it means to be unemployed and their perceived generosity of the social security system now the avoidable depression is throwing millions out of their jobs - including them? The persistent antipathy toward asylum seekers must chime with how millions live their lives in some way, otherwise no one would care and politicians trying to exploit these sentiments would be pissing in the wind.

The first port of call is atomisation. In Capital Marx noted how the employment relation simultaneously collectivised and individuated working people. Where collectivism is weak, individual competition and division abounds. Unsurprisingly, in a country where trade unions and the labour movement remain shadows of their post-war selves and solidarity is just a word in the dictionary, this competition manifests in terms of a distrust of outsiders, the idea people fleeing persection are really economic migrants looking to take jobs from British residents. Or, as per scrounger rhetoric, choose Britain and not the "first safe country" because the UK is too compassionate, too much of a soft touch. They're here to sponge while we stoically graft away. Complete bollocks, yes, but makes sense for some. However, this gets a twist insofar as this is a minority view among the working age population, if YouGov's figures are taken as good coin. For our beloved elders, the majority of whom wish ill on unauthorised newcomers to these shores, they no longer compete with them for jobs but instead are seen as unworthy recipients of public funds. I.e. Their lifetime's payment of taxes and, in this respect, direct competitors for access to these services on theirs and their family's part.

The perception of unearned and illegitimate access to public largesse is one. The other comes from the dark place of ontological anxiety. Faced with uncertainty, it's common for strata who feel precarity keenly to look for simple solutions and authoritative (if not authoritarian) direction and intervention to overcome the angst. Failing that, being seen to do something is just as popular. The idea of giving young offenders a good hiding, for instance, won't put anyone on the path to rehabilitation, but a sharp shock of suffering salves the anxiety. Or to put it another way, everything uncertain and wrong in the world can be condensed into scapegoats, and seeing them on the receiving end of violence is gratifying. It shows someone is fighting back against the unwelcome encroachment of whatever they find threatening, and so the longing to see violence done is a rebellion against the inevitable demise of everything they hold dear. Shipping off asylum seekers or sinking their dinghies is a two-fingered salute to a world gone wrong, a world that fundamentally frightens them and conjures the night terrors. Cruelty preserves what they value, which is an imagined, nostalgic status quo of their importance, if not pre-emininence, and a world familiar to them. Lashing out, the perception of lashing out, helps keep the world for them fundamentally simple and knowable. Which, ultimately, is what strata occupying uncertain social locations would like the most.

Cruelty then is irredeemably bound up with a sense of powerlessness and fatalism, and can only be challenged in the long run by projects of collective empowerment with anti-racism at their core. In other words, attack the rhetoric while raking up the fertile ground scapegoating thrives in. Less cruelty demands radical care, which ultimately only a socialist and politicised labour movement can deliver.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

"Cruelty then is irredeemably bound up with a sense of powerlessness and fatalism..." Correct.

Not sure about the rest. Name me a time in any place in history when there has not been antagonism to immigrants. Read an account of Caeser's wars in Gaul where he celebrated slaughtering hundreds of thousands of men, women and children not invading but emmigrating westwards. Equally, the only reason the Kindertransport is celebrated is because the British would ONLY let in the children and not the parents.

There is the issue about resources, yes, but I think this is far more culturally ingrained - an evolved antagonism to other cultures. Hardly a modern phenomenon or failing.

Now this idea of 'the elders' being irredeemably ignorant and selfish. Traditionally the view of the elders was most respected. Now, of course, as illustrated by your observations, that respect has drained away. According to your logic, perhaps this makes them angry and wish to lash out.

Alternatively their age may provide them with a memory of comparable times pre-mass immigration and something to compare it with. Pre-multicultural Brexit land, if you will - something you presumably view as hideously white. Obviously a case of rose-tinted glasses on their part, but not all that is modern is good and all that is old is bad. And perhaps what is good to you is bad to them. I think the role of cultural belonging is downplayed in your analysis.

The old associate the relative harshness of their times with the relative goodness of them - a necessary evil. Perhaps they understand this is no zero sum game - what is good for you may be bad for them. Your good is their evil. From their perspective mass immigration was imposed upon them and something they did not want, and now you lambast them as cruel for not loving it. So each side sees the other as nasty. The current culture wars in a nutshell.

Kamo said...

Patel is shifting the Overton window, processing in the mid-Atlantic isn't going to happen, but some sort of offshore processing to discourage people in safe countries boarding dinghies will happen. The suspicion is that people coming from safe countries are economic migrants abusing the process; perhaps if the UK agreed an annual quota of genuine refugees from safe countries, with illegal entry from a safe country immediately invalidating any claim it will placate those opposed to the abuse of asylum whilst also demonstrating a willingness to share some of burden on genuine asylum?

Blissex said...

«The desire to see people suffer is popular»

Perhaps this is the conceit that political opponents don't just have different interests, but they are evil too. Some are, but usually it is quite different: to me it seems to be callousness, not evil. For example lots of right-wing voters really are sorry to know that there are people suffering hardship in poverty, they just don't want to pay to alleviate other «people's suffering.

Nearly everybody in the UK has that attitude to some extent, not many has been proposing to raise UK taxes to a minimum of 70% of every income to pay for unemployment benefits for the congolese or for healthcare free at the point of delivery for the afghanis. Nearly everybody in the UK is willing to pay to alleviate the adversities of "their own", and nearly nobody has a notion of "their own" that extends to the congolese or the afghanis etc.; for some it does not extent to the scots, for others it does extend beyond their own class, for others it is as narrow as their family, for a few it is just themselves.

Some people are more callous still and make the "sacrifice" of feeling bad about the suffering of some other people so that the latter be an example to others, e.g. workhouses/universal credit or migrants in detention centres. I think that few people really want others to suffer.

Blissex said...

«Or, as per scrounger rhetoric, choose Britain and not the "first safe country"»

But that point is very valid but for "scrounger": all those who are trying to get out of France to come to the UK are surely not trying to escape an "unsafe" country like France, similarly all those who travelled from the Middle East to Germany were not trying to escape "unsafe" countries like Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Czechia, Austria.

Obviously many economic migrants are aiming for the most welcoming and richest country, not the first safe place.

«because the UK is too compassionate, too much of a soft touch.»

Indeed, but that's not because of its rather minimal welfare, but because of the very weak enforcement of very weak labour laws. They know that once they are in the UK, especially in London, they can much more easily disappear in the undergound economy than in France. Note that one point of locking up migrants in remote islands or poor remote countries is to ensure they don't fade into the domestic underground economy, something that I guess is aimed at pleasing "red wall" voters. Let's remember as to working-class attitudes that still in the 1960s the trade unions had agreed with many businesses to exclude colored or irish workers from the "good jobs":
On August 15 1966 the colour bar at Euston station and St Pancras goods station was defeated when Asquith Xavier, the West Indian guard initially refused a job, was finally allowed to start work. British Rail announced that after negotiations with local leaders of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) no grade would in future be closed on racial grounds anywhere in the London division. Before this, black workers had been barred from taking jobs as guards and porters at Euston Station and St. Pancras while Irish workers at Paddington were restricted to labouring roles in the goods yard. Similar restrictions applied at other stations.

Many trade unions also loved the "closed shop", and restrictions on migrants are effectively a (weak) "closed shop" for UK voters.

Many working-class people reckon that they cannot protect themselves from the power of employers, and it is easier to protect themselves from the competion for jobs from other class people.

Germany is instead “too much of a soft touch” with migrants by policy, as business owners know how much profit the previous two generations made from turkish "guest workers", and they have obviously lobbied the german government to entice as many new "guest workers" as possible, especially given falling german birth rates.

Blissex said...

«Germany is instead “too much of a soft touch” with migrants by policy, as business owners»

A difference between USA/UK and Germany to some extent is that USA/UK small business owners much prefer to hire illegal immigrants paid cash, in part because they are more biddable, in part because as they are "invisible" and their wages are paid cash, it becomes much easier to make part of their turnover "invisible" to the tax office too. I guess it is not just hand-washing cars.
In Germany instead businesses prefer or at least are willing to have the government regularize and train (including 6 months of intensive language learning) the migrants.

Kamo said...

"Obviously many economic migrants are aiming for the most welcoming and richest country, not the first safe place."

The public recognise this, they also recognise the difference between asylum and economic migration. Which is why talk of cruelty towards people in safe countries boarding dingies doesn't really cut through. There's fleeing persecution and there's wanting to work in your second cousin's restaurant/shop in London. The UK should take some of the burden of genuine refugees, but there's too much wilful conflation of asylum and economic migration, and it doesn't help either group.