Europe — it is often said — is suffering from a resurgence of xenophobia. The tightening of immigration laws in places like Denmark, Brexit in UK, the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, the various extreme nationalisms of East Europe: The list is long. It is also slightly misleading, because there are strong counter-pressures too, most recently perceived in the tactical voting that is intended to keep the far right out of power in France, and the loss of the far right in Austria.
It also appears that the kind of bald racism that came to light during Donald Trump’s mainstream campaign in the US is relegated to smaller and murkier corners in West and North Europe, though not necessarily in all of East Europe. This might just be because more Europeans still remember, vividly, the rise of the Nazis and the consequences of World War II.
And yet, it is a mistake to segregate too strongly between xenophobia in Europe and that in the US or, for that matter, anywhere else. All of it arises from a similar cause, though it finds expression in different ways in different countries.
The cause is this: Whether we like it or not, we live in a capitalist world economy, where capital, goods and labour are supposed to circulate freely. Of course, this has never been the case: Capital, and, to some extent, goods tend to circulate far more easily than labour. For one, labour needs to relocate and retrain; capital can be moved from one business to another at the tap of a finger. Hence, Third World labour — more rigidly regulated by visa and passport requirements than First World labour — has always found it particularly difficult to move.
And yet, thousands have moved — usually to countries, like the richer nations of Europe, where they can find work and a better lifestyle. The reason why they can find a better life in such countries has to do with historical factors (such as colonisation) and current ones, such as the dominance of First World capital globally. Actually, the famous welfare systems of Europe — fraying but still admirable — also have to do with these factors.
Ironically, both the left and the right talk of this in terms of labour movement, when actually the migration of labour is a fraction of the movement of capital across national borders. The European left usually talks of the need to import labour to maintain living standards; the European right usually talks of the danger of letting strangers into the country. For the left, Syrians refugees are young workers who can contribute to ageing populations; for the right, they are potential Islamists. But neither talks about the massive, uncontrolled circulation of capital across the globe — which is what we should be talking about.
And matters got worse with the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1980s. Among others, the economist Samir Amin has noted that sometime in the 1980s-90s, the world of capitalism underwent a major change. It shifted from being based on production and trade inside and outside national borders to becoming a free play of finance capital across national borders. As far back as 2002, as Amin noted in one of his studies, goods and services transactions of world GDP came to represent only three per cent of the total monetary and financial transactions conducted in that year. He went on to note: “The ratio between hedging operations and production and international trading was 28:1 in 2002 — a disproportion that has been constantly growing for about the last twenty years and which has never been witnessed in the entire history of capitalism.”
Along with this, and aiding this, is the shift from a monetary economy to a digital one: Most of the capital that circulates around the globe now does not exist as cash-money; it exists only as digits, as numbers. Interestingly, this massive flight of finance capital across the globe — no longer rooted in production, trade, even services — remains largely unimpeded. National politicians can manage their countries, perhaps, but never really the global finance capital that impacts on everyone.
Even mainstream leftist parties seem to lack the will or the vision to stop it, as they have increasingly defined themselves and national prosperity in predominantly neoliberal terms. As this locust cloud of finance capital circling the world — which descends in a locality only to devour it — cannot be made visible to ordinary people, what is made visible is the subsidiary consequence of such devouring: Immigrants workers, who have been largely forced to move by such locust attacks, and related elements, such as the movement of struggling production units to cheaper areas.
Europe might be particularly susceptible to such selective vision, given its history of considering itself special — the “civilising mission” is the flip-side of “white superiority” — and the nature of its welfare states. The welfare riches of Europe depend on its dominating status in the globalised world of finance capital: Note that West/North Europe, as a whole, is wealthier than either the US or China. But as this is something that ordinary people do not understand and the media hardly talk about (except in ideology-sanctioned positive terms), globalisation is seen as the movement of people. This selective vision informs the growing xenophobia in Europe.
There is a need in Europe to look at the way finance capital is circulating, and to tax the movement of international finance capital. Europe has the economic clout to ask for it, but not the political or military clout. The US does. But the US, half-heartedly under Obama and enthusiastically under Trump, is not going to do so. The US, too, is going to talk of labour — Muslims, Indians, Mexicans — and not about the locust cloud of finance capital circling the world, and the cash being tucked away in tax-safe havens by the super-rich.
Europe’s simmering xenophobia stems from the inability of its politicians to manage global capital. Instead, all they can do is “manage” labour movement — or resentments.