I feel like a stranger in the world, especially Europe. Over the past week or two I have travelled across Europe, from east to northwest, and stayed in different places. It is turning out to be intimately familiar and disconcertingly strange.

Why? After some discussion, it seems as though these are some of the features.

Everywhere it seems as though people are obsessed about refugees and immigrants, no matter what the political persuasion. It is not merely the right-wing groups and parties who make this an issue: nearly everyone seems to feel it is the main problem facing Europe today. But if we take a Marxist approach, then the concern with migrants is a diversion, if not a symptom of the main problem: economics and class.

So let me use this lens to interpret what I see and hear:

  1. A major plank of EU economic policy is a ‘free labour market’. What this really means is that people seeking work from poorer countries will drive down incomes and conditions of those in the richer countries. In other words, the migrant labour situation is standard EU policy. This situation creates the scene for a number of responses:
  2. The recasting of this policy in light of the strange framework of a scarcity of jobs: with limited jobs in the richer countries, the increasing number of migrants seeking work means greater unemployment, crime and so on. Very strange: if workers in the richer countries were prepared to take jobs with lower pay and less conditions, wherever such a job might be, they would still have work – in line with EU policy.
  3. The narrative of the various ‘right-wing’ parties is that migrants from the Middle East are taking jobs.
  4. The narrative of the social-democratic parties is that cheaper labourers from eastern Europe are taking jobs and social welfare.
  5. Speaking of social welfare, the implicit xenophobia of the welfare state reveals its face. Such welfare is only for the deserving within a state, not for the EU as a whole, or indeed wider.
  6. And those who see themselves as middle-class progressives can now blame the workers for being racist and reactionary.
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(I posted this one over at Voyages on the Left, but thought I would post it here too.)

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Syria’, said the young man.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. Some minutes later, his friend arrived and they asked me about their train ticket. Or rather, they showed it to me, with quizzical faces. Their final destination was Kiel, in the north of Germany, which required a change in Hamburg. I promised to help them when we arrived in Hamburg.

I noticed that they had a small backpack each and that they looked weary, very weary. Holidaymakers hereabouts usually carry much more. And they usually stay in hotels with comfortable beds, or perhaps – like me – they stay with friends and acquaintances. These two young men were not holidaymakers and they had clearly not slept in a comfortable bed for quite a while.

My thoughts went back to the crossing of the border between the Netherlands and Germany, an hour or so earlier. I was on my way from the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn to Copenhagen, a journey that should have taken twelve hours. At the German border crossing, an unusual number of police patrolled the station and the train itself. The open borders of the European Union were not so open any more. In my carriage, they stopped to speak with another young man.

‘Where are you from?’ The police officers asked.

‘Tunisia’, he said.

‘May we see your passport?’ They asked. Upon perusing it, they said: ‘You do not have a visa. Please come with us’.

He followed them off the train, where a number of people had also gathered. Soon enough they were led off by the police for processing.

At that time, I had not yet made the connection. But with the two Syrians on the later train, it hit me: I was experiencing first-hand the European refugee ‘crisis’ of late 2015. Or rather, it was only the first, very small taste.

By the time I arrived at Hamburg, I realised I was in the midst of the greatest movement of people in recorded history – from countries destroyed by foreign intervention, such Syria, Afghanistan, Libya … It is one thing to see stories on the television or read about it in a distant newspaper, with the usual distortions and sensationalism. It is another thing entirely to experience it directly.

The train on which I was travelling arrived late, having left Osnabrück late. Hoping that in Hamburg my connection to Copenhagen was also late, I raced to find the platform. The train had already left. After rescheduling my travel at the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, I had an hour or more to explore the station. As an ancient centre, Hamburg always bustles. But this was no ordinary bustle. It was packed full of people.

In the toilets, many Syrian men were having a wash. The cost of entry may have been one euro, but the attendant was letting them in for nothing. On the stairs, in the passageways, on the platforms were group upon group of tired refugees. A family sat in a corner, with the mother quietly breastfeeding the baby. A man from Afghanistan spoke with a women next to me, saying he and his group had been on the road for four weeks. They would stay in one country for a night, perhaps two, and then move on. All of them – families, groups of young men and women, occasional older people with someone to help them – had nothing more than a small backpack and perhaps a smartphone in order to keep up with what was happening.

Finally my train arrived, although now I had to go via Jutland and around to Copenhagen. The German railway system was straining, with all trains running late. My train was soon full to overflowing with refugees. I sat next to a German woman from Flensburg.

‘I never expected this’, I said, ‘although I should have’.

‘There are so many’, she said, ‘even more this month’.

‘Where are they going?’ I asked.

‘To every city, town and village in Germany’, she said.

‘How do they get there?’ I asked.

‘The German government provides them with tickets’, she said.

‘In the Netherlands’, I said, ‘people were saying, “it is what you do”’.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘this is what we think too. However, we cannot do it alone’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Other countries need to help’, she said. ‘This is a global problem. But Denmark, Norway, Hungary … they refuse to take any refugees’.

‘Really’, I said. ‘But they are rich countries, with many resources to share’.

She smiled ruefully.

At Flensburg, in the midst of one of my ancestral homes by name of Schleswig-Holstein, we had to change trains. For many, Flensburg was the end of their journey for now. Arabic-speaking Germans were ready on the platform. They wore ‘Welcome Refugees’ jackets and guided people to the station centre. There they provided some food, drink and arranged accommodation for those who were staying in Flensburg.

Yet again, I had missed my connection, so I had to wait for the next train, now in the middle of the night. I did not expect anyone to board the train to Denmark, given that country’s less than welcoming reputation. The barriers on the platform for Denmark reinforced this impression. However, when the train arrived, a large group of refugees were led onto the platform. The station personnel at the barriers did not request passports – only valid tickets. Soon the train was full.

Now I became fully involved.

One young man spoke English, so he became the interpreter and de facto leader of a train full of anxious refugees. They were constantly keen for information in a foreign country with strange customs. At the Danish border, I expected them all to be hauled off the train.

Instead, a Danish police officer came through and asked, ‘Anyone seeking asylum in Denmark?’

One by one, everyone responded, ‘Sweden’.

He walked on.

An Arabic speaking woman followed him, checking to see if people had understood. One or two had further questions. By her shrug and sour look, one could tell immediately that she didn’t care and had no desire to help.

At Fredericia, in Denmark, the train stopped for some time. An announcement stated that we would not have to change, for the train would now go through to Copenhagen. Obviously, the authorities feared some might disappear on their way to another platform. A large group gathered around me as the interpreter asked what was happening. I explained the change in plans in detail, answering further questions.

Soon enough the last toilet on the train stopped working. I advised those whose bladders were about to burst that a corner on the platform was a good place for such purposes – having done so myself. A couple of women were not so keen, so I asked some station attendants of they could fix the toilets. They did so – with much relief.

After yet another delay, we departed. A weary train soon fell asleep. Children slept on seats and on the floor between seats. Old people were given the best spots. Young people did the best they could with the remaining space.

By 3.00 am we finally arrived in Copenhagen – five hours later than my original schedule. Everyone disembarked and asked me – through their translator – whether they had to take a ship to Malmø. The train will take you there, I told them.

‘I wish you all the best’, I said. ‘I hope you find a welcoming country and a place to make a new home’.

They thanked me profusely for the little help I had given, shaking my hand one by one. We waved farewell.

Walking out of the station and into a rainy Scandinavian night in mid-November, I found I could barely imagine what such a journey must be like for them, fleeing a home engulfed in war. Their towns and villages were being destroyed, people around them were being killed, mostly by foreign forces. They did not know what lay ahead.

Yet I was struck by the way everyone was very helpful. No-one pushed or shoved to get on or off a train. Instead they assisted each other. People constantly made room for anyone else, offering seats and places where needed. The feel on the train was far from any sense of danger, but rather a sense of weary and hopeful collective will.

The situation went beyond politics and propaganda. It boils down to a simple question: if someone is in dire need, you either turn your back or you help. For you never know when you will be in such a situation.

I can say that while teaching in China I am enjoying the process of setting young and active minds on the correct path. To that end, I tell them:

1. The United States is a very strange country, unlike any other. For that reason, they should not generalise from the USA.

2. Europe is a very barbaric place, full of petty tribalisms.

3. Bourgeois (liberal) democracy is a dreadful system, best avoided (actually, they know this already).

4. Australia is neither a Western nor an Eastern country, since it is in the South.

5. Kangaroo meat is very good for you.

Since many of my students will be future government leaders and officials, I hope these items and more will have some effect.

However, I have also learnt a few things from them:

1. Communism is not a rational ideal that you then try to actualise.

2. Communism is not singular but multiple.

3. They work very hard and know much more about the rest of the world than the world knows about China.

4. One’s stomach is the best guide for travelling to different places.

5. Office hours mean I buy them lunch and we talk for more than four hours – about everything.

Most European cities are supposed to be human-centred affairs, where everyone gently walks about on quaint streets, enjoys those completely wanky things called ‘culture’ or ‘history’, or breathes the supposed ‘soul’ of a faux city core. Nothing could be further from the truth, for they are alienating experiences that remind me uncannily of Disneyworld or the Epcot Centre. But perhaps there is another reason, which was revealed to me the other day: they are planned to the minutest detail. No refurbishment, no new building, no work in any sense can be done without planning to the minutest detail. Any renovation must follow manufactured codes of what counts as ‘old’ or ‘historic’. Any new construction must meet an endless set of requirements, so as to fit in with the ‘feel’ of what is already there, or perhaps to fit a model of what is supposed to be an ideal city in some other place. By contrast, take me to a place that has grown organically, in which planners struggle and usually fail to impose their ideas after the fact, where planning has become impossible. Actually, take me out of cities altogether …

I continue to be simultaneously amused and befuddled by European tribalism – that strange notion, asserted in both extreme and subtle fashions, that each of the little countries in that part of the world is quintessentially different the other (yes, Germany is a little country too). People of the same ethnic group living in largely the same landscape are prepared to assert vigorously that they are fundamentally different from neighbours, of the same group and in the same landscape, who live a bicycle ride away.

Recently I was reminded of one of the clearest manifestations of that tribalism: the idea that those islands off the western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass are fundamentally different from the rest of Europe. This would have to be the oddest thing I have ever heard. No, let’s be polite about this: it’s complete crap.

Update: High resolution versions available here.

Today the snow came down, so my bicycle stayed warm and inside while we set out for … the DDR shop! The real find was the following, a map of European history between 1476 and 1648 – from the perspective of class struggle.

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The two major centres of bourgeois revolution took place first in the Netherlands (the bigger the flag the larger the revolution):

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And then in England where capitalist manufacturing took off after the Dutch had laid the groundwork in agricultural capitalism and trade:

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In fact, much of western Europe is covered in bourgeois revolutions:

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Meanwhile, in the rest of Europe class war was underway, with the red triangles signalling peasant class struggle:

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There was a fair bit of that going on:

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But the real flashpoints came with the Peasant Revolution, marked by a white triangle and flag within a red square:

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Thomas Müntzer, a leader of the peasants and key ‘theologian of the revolution’ (as Bloch called him) was, of course, one of Luther’s students who took his teacher’s points to their logical conclusion. Who said Protestantism doesn’t have radical revolutionary potential? Luther was horrified, backtracking from what he had instigated and – to his eternal shame – calling for everyone else to kill, crush and destroy any peasant they might meet.

Ah, they don’t make such maps as much as they used to. Time for a revision of the high school history curriculum, it seems to me.

Meanwhile, the bicycles left outside shivered in the wintry weather:

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(ht cp)

I remember some time back in 2003 or thereabouts, pundits were wondering whether a renewed and united Europe might challenge US dominance, acting as a counter-weight to the last one standing after the Cold War. The drive to unity seemed strong, eastern European countries were joining in the grand project, the constitution was being bounced around, economic figures seemed promising. How quaint all that discussion now seems. The truth is that ever since 1945, Europe has been the US’s tart. While the USA enjoyed global economic power, it could buy it’s tart (one of many) fancy clothes, nice cars, penthouse apartments, in exchange for a few ‘services’. And Europe could pretend that it was doing reasonably well on its own, that it was a respectable dame, to the extent of thinking it might go out on its own. But now that the pimp has begun to find cash a little short, to realise that its control of the streets is slipping, the tart has found that the good life really is over. All that the rolling crisis since 2008 has done is strip off the baubles, repossess the fine cars and evict the tenant from the penthouse.  (Here it is worth remembering that as soon as a major power needs to use military force, it has already begun the long slide downhill; the reason is that use of force is a signal that others dare to challenge it. That would mean the decline of the USA began in the 1970s).

The problem is that it is taking a while to realise this. Like passengers on a ship who refuse to believe that the alarming tilt of the ship is more than a roll, people assert that the ‘euro will not collapse’, that ‘they will do something’. Might be worth going up on deck to see what is going on. Or, to shift the metaphor, all that the EU managers are left with is trying to emulate God at the moment of creation: merely saying that the crisis will be averted, that the Euro will be saved, that Europe will survive, is somehow regarded as enough to make it actually happen.

I would suggest that the Greek situation (or indeed Spanish or …) is part of this larger picture. Rather than some short-circuit that may revive Europe, it is better seen as a clear indication of the marginalisation (or peripheralisation) of Europe on the world stage. Why? The problem is not Greece but Europe as a whole, which is pretty much cactus – as any time spent there soon reveals. Further, the possibility that there may be a revolution in Greece, even if it is crushed initially, signals precisely that marginalisation. Recall that all of the successful communist revolutions have happened on the global peripheries thus far. But rather than make the most of this situation, a goodly number on the Left remain residual Eurocentrics. Having given up on other parts of the globe as the locus of any progressive promise, they hold vainly onto the belief that Europe will lead the way. Better to embrace the marginalisation and go hell for revolutionary leather.