The Ghost of Christmas Past

It seems that the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has led to a resurgence of interest in the work of Hannah Arendt, and in particular her analysis of totalitarianism. An article in The Atlantic from January 25th listed The Origins of Totalitarianism on its list of books experiencing a marked increase of sales – others on the list include George Orwell’s 1984, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent – and a series of articles in newspapers and news magazines have all explored the potential applicability of Arendt’s insights into totalitarianism to today’s political climate.

Origins has long been one of my favourite books. It was, in fact, a chapter from this book that first sparked my interest in refugees, statelessness and human rights, back when I was a mere ‘baby undergraduate’ taking a class on human rights; although it wasn’t until the start of my PhD that I read the book in its entirety. This chapter, “The Decline of the Nation State and the End of the Rights of Man” is now one that I assign to all of the students on my Refugees and International Relations class to read at the beginning of the semester, and while it has not been the particular focus of many of the articles now engaging with Arendt’s work, a series of current events seem to be making it more and more relevant by the day.

Two days ago, on February 21st, the following video was posted to the Al Jazeera website:

Al Jazeera’s correspondent reports on claims that France has been illegally deporting refugees and asylum seekers back over the border into Italy, and has been prosecuting French citizens who give shelter and aid to individuals who have crossed irregularly into France, using the same routes – and tactics – that Jewish refugees used to flee the Nazis.

And then today, 23rd February, the BBC posted a story on new guidelines issued by the Trump administration which would involve unilaterally deporting undocumented immigrants in the US to Mexico, including non-Mexicans. The Mexican Foreign Minister is reported as saying, unsurprisingly, that this policy is unacceptable to the Mexican government, and that they are under no legal obligation to accept any non-Mexicans that the US would try to deport there.

The French episode is merely the latest in the long-running ‘crisis of borders’ gripping European politics, including: the re-establishment of border controls in certain Schengen zone states; a new deal with Libya to beef-up the Mediterranean border; the EU-Turkey agreement by which the EU essentially pays Turkey to be its open-air migration prison and which has left asylum seekers to waste away in deplorable conditions on the Greek islands; and, of course, the Brexiteers’ dream of “getting back control of our borders” as the ultimate expression of the sovereignty they claim we’ve lost. The US episode is similarly situated within a broader discourse on immigration and border security, and the need to “take back control”, and worrying reports that the Trump administration is putting together plans to try to follow through on his campaign promise deport the 11 million undocumented people living in the US – a policy, incidentally, which Keith Olbermann warned during the campaign would almost certainly have to involve the use of camps.

Not only these policies, but the broader environment from which they originate are chilling echoes of Arendt’s account of the response of European states to the existence of refugees throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and there are good reasons for this to be a significant cause of concern – and not just for those of us with a vested interest in forced migration. Briefly, for those unfamiliar with “The Decline of the Nation State and the End of the Rights of Man”, it is the final chapter in part two of Origins (which examines the role of Imperialism in helping to create the conditions within which totalitarianism could emerge). In it, Arendt recounts how and why the creation of nation-states has a tendency to produce refugees, and how the rapid increase in the numbers of refugees between the wars revealed a crisis at the heart of the system of human rights that had remained hidden until the emergence of mass displacement after World War One. The paradox that these refugees revealed at the heart of the system of rights was that what had been conceived as human rights were in fact only the rights of citizens, evidenced by the unwillingness of the nation-states of Europe to protect the rights of non-nationals. This paradox has been present in the system of human rights ever since the emergence of the nation-state with the French Revolution, but had remained hidden for as long as “the comity of European nations had lasted” – a comity which ended with World War One. The significance of the French Revolution lay in what Arendt called the “conquering of the state by the nation”, a process whereby the state was transformed from an instrument of the law – for the protection of all inhabitants – to an instrument of the nation – to protect only those who rightfully belonged by blood or birth. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, merged ‘man’ – the subject of inalienable rights – with the citizen, tying human rights to citizenship from the very beginning. While all individuals were considered to belong to a state this marriage was relatively unproblematic. But a series of events after the First World War revealed that not everyone did belong to a state – despite their physical presence within one state or another – and that when individuals were no longer recognised as belonging to a state, no other state was willing to guarantee their supposedly human rights. Arendt uses this analysis to posit the existence of the one truly human right, which still remains unrecognised today: the right to belong to a political community that is willing and able to guarantee all other rights. What she referred to as the right to have rights.

What is particularly interesting – and disturbing – in Arendt’s account, in light of the stories I highlighted above, is the role of the police in the attempted ‘management’ of forced migration in inter-war Europe. The appearance of the stateless (Arendt considered the core of refugeehood to be identical with statelessness) signaled a dramatic increase in the power of the police in continental Europe – not coincidentally a key factor in the rise of totalitarianism. In theory, a number of mechanisms existed to deal with the legal anomalies that were the stateless: asylum, repatriation, and naturalisation. States were neither interested in asylum nor naturalisation as they had no desire to add to their own populations, and in fact it became common for states to reverse earlier naturalisations of individuals from the same groups then seeking admittance, which only compounded the problem. Repatriation was doomed to fail as there was no country to which these people could be returned, as their countries of origin simply refused to claim them. Since legal deportation of the refugees was not an option because no other state would lay claim to them, the whole matter was swiftly transferred to the police, and a system of reciprocal illegal deportations was triggered all over mainland Europe (incidentally, where such deportation proved impossible, the favoured solution was to keep the refugees in internment camps). The paradoxical result of this system of illegal deportations is that it was in the one sphere in which, theoretically, state sovereignty is absolute – the control of entry of foreign nationals – that European states deliberately violated each other’s sovereignty in the attempt to regain control of their own. This was a key episode in the “decline of the nation-state” which would also provide fertile soil for the growth of totalitarian movements.

One doesn’t have to look very hard to see the gradual rise in influence and power once more of the police, and security services and, perhaps even more worryingly, the co-optation of other branches of government and public services to create a kind of society-wide border police force. Europe now has a continental border police force – FRONTEX – which coordinates not only with national police forces but also with InterPol. In the UK, when the government isn’t sub-contracting it out to private security companies like G4S, immigration detention centers in which many asylum seekers are kept, and can be kept indefinitely, are run by the same ministry with responsibility for prisons. Universities in the UK have become extensions of the UKVI, the department responsible for visas and immigration, with requirements that we report on the whereabouts of our foreign students. Airlines flying into Europe have to comply with a series of regulations which essentially turn them into border agents, engaging in pre-screening of travelers before they reach state borders. And in the US, sanctuary cities, which maintain a firewall between federal immigration authorities and state and municipal services, are under threat from the Trump administration, which has also issued an executive order to facilitate the hiring of an additional 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers – presumably to help him carry out his mass deportation plan.

Given the place that “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man” occupies in Arendt’s analysis of the emergence of totalitarianism there is good reason to be concerned about all of these developments, especially in light of the resurgence of radical right political movements both in Europe and in the US. But, I want to suggest that there may be a glimmer of hope hidden in the stories emerging from the small French town of Menton, featured in Al Jazeera’s report; in the steadfast opposition that has been emerging from the mayors of US sanctuary cities; and from the response in the US and across the world to Trump’s first try at his Muslim ban. This glimmer of hope is that some ordinary citizens, when faced with the resurgence of the far-right, increasing powers for the police and security services, and the expectation that we all collaborate with various immigration authorities to root out those who “don’t belong”, appear to be willing to stand up and resist. And it is here that I think another of Arendt’s essays can provide food for thought: her essay on Civil Disobedience.

In this essay, written in light of the nationwide protests against US action in Vietnam, and the refusal of the judiciary to rule on the legality of these actions, Arendt writes that

“civil disobedience arises when a significant number of citizens has become convinced either that the normal channels of change no longer function, and grievances will not be heard or acted upon, or that, on the contrary, the government is about to change and has embarked upon and persists in modes of action whose legality and constitutionality are open to grave doubt.” (Crises of the Republic, 60).

Arendt is keen to counter what she considered to be two common criticisms or modes of maligning civil disobedience and civil disobedients: equating them either with criminals or with revolutionaries. There is, she writes

“all the difference in the world between the criminal’s avoiding the public eye and the civil disobedient’s taking the law into his own hands in open defiance…the common lawbreaker, even if he belongs to a criminal organisation, acts for his own benefit alone; he refuses to be overpowered by the consent of all others and will yield only to the violence of the law-enforcement agencies. The civil disobedient, though he is usually dissenting from a majority, acts in the name and for the sake of a group; he defies the law and the established authorities on the ground of basic dissent, and not because he as an individual wishes to make an exception for himself and to get away with it.” (60)

In contrast to the revolutionary, “the civil disobedient accepts…the frame of established authority and the general legitimacy of the system of laws” (61). I can’t go into all of Arendt’s arguments on civil disobedience here, but vital to understanding the importance of civil disobedience to democratic politics is the notion of consent. The various social contract theories which provide the legitimation for most democratic societies rely, in some way, on consent. Regardless of whether the initial granting of consent, in the form of the creation of the contract or compact, was a historical fact or merely a helpful fiction, consent is nevertheless to be assumed for every citizen in the community – “a kind of conformity to the rules under which the great game of the world is played in the particular group to which [we] belong by birth” (71). We all, Arendt writes “live and survive by a kind of tacit consent, which, however, it would be difficult to call voluntary. How can we will what was there anyhow?” (70). An important feature of democratic societies, however, is that dissent is supposed to be “a legal and de facto possibility, making dissent the hallmark of free government: one who knows that he may dissent knows also that he somehow consents when he does not dissent (71)”. We must, however, “carefully distinguish this general tacit consent [to the overall framework of law] from consent to specific laws or specific policies, which it does not cover even if they are the result of majority decisions” (71). Civil disobedience as a phenomenon poses the difficult question of whether it is a greater display of patriotism and respect for the law to withdraw your consent in the face of legislation or action which is either designed to, or will foreseeably, undermine the spirit of the law and freedoms which supposedly underpin democratic societies, than it is to passively consent to such laws in the name of the sanctity of majority decision? I do not have an answer to this question. But I do wonder if there might be some wisdom to be drawn from this account of civil disobedience moving forward.

While the US may be a little further along the road to requiring, once more, the kind of civil disobedience which exploded during the Vietnam war than European societies, who, for now, have managed to avoid electing a man like Donald Trump/Steve Bannon, an ethos of civil disobedience may turn out to be a vital tool in protecting ourselves and others from the dangers posed to our hard-won rights and freedoms by the far-right, and asylum and immigration policies which foreseeably – and, some would argue, deliberately – cause immense suffering and undermine human rights for everyone, not just for migrants.

I am teaching on my Ethics and World Politics class tomorrow, and we will be discussing justice, duties and responsibilities, and I would like to end this post by posing an open question which, when I’ve finished writing my book, I would very much like to return to:

In the face of policies which seem in no small part designed to evade responsibility for human rights protection, do ordinary citizens have a duty to disobey unjust immigration legislation? Do we have a responsibility to act as Cedric Herrou did in the mountains between France and Italy – offering sanctuary and assistance to asylum seekers, in defiance of the law?



One thought on “The Ghost of Christmas Past

  1. I love that you have tied the notion of human rights to borders and nation states. My grandfather lived and travelled before world war 1 when borders were not as rigid and travel didn’t require much other than packing a suitcase and getting on a boat. He spent many years telling me how humans seem to lose their freedom as they “modernize”. And he often explained how in the Quran, your nation and your people are defined by the place where you settle to earn your living and the neighbors that you have.. no blood or heritage involved, your allegiance is to the law of the land and the people you live amongst, and that if it doesn’t suit you you pick up and seek a home elsewhere. Laws absolutely need to be broken where necessary and if someone is seeking refuge where the law doesn’t allow it, then providing refuge is a moral duty and has nothing to do with the law.

    Liked by 1 person

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