Friday, 4 September 2015

Crisis? What crisis?

The flow of people across Europe, mainly fleeing war in Syria, is the biggest news story across the continent. Sometimes the focus is on arrivals in Greece, other times points of transit in Macedonia or Hungary. In the UK much attention is given to the people gathered at Calais, trying to get to Britain, although the numbers here are much smaller than those in many other places.
Invariably, this is described as a crisis. But I think that is misleading in two ways. First, it implies that it is a temporary phenomenon that will soon be over. That is highly unlikely, although the end of summer may well temporarily reduce the numbers of people making the dangerous sea crossings to Europe. Second, it implies that what is happening suddenly arose from nowhere. That is highly misleading. It is a situation that has been developing over several years, mainly as a result of war, instability, poverty and repression in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The ‘crisis’ motif is also rather offensive in that it suggests that it is the countries of Europe that are suffering: yet if there is a crisis, then those experiencing it are surely the people whose lives have been destroyed, setting them on horrendous journeys of desperation?
Beyond the way that what is happening now has a past and a future that makes the idea of a crisis moment implausible is something else which is more directly relevant to the themes of the book and to the study of organizations and management more generally. It is the nature and meaning of globalization. Every student of management, and for that matter every citizen and voter, has been told for decades that we live in an increasingly globalized and inter-connected world. But that almost always references the globalization of organizations, markets and trade. Moreover, it has a sanitized, upbeat sense of a world of opportunity. Yet global inter-connectedness applies no less to people, and can have a reality which is more about squalid suffering than the breathless, bloodless nostrums of corporate strategy documents.
Confronted with these people and this reality it seems that many in Europe recoil in horror. In many countries, including the UK, that is exacerbated by years of highly negative and stigmatic depictions of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. So whereas in the UK (as I point out on pp. 106-7) the globalization of ownership has been treated as a matter of no importance, the globalization of people is a very different matter.
There’s little point reprising all the familiar and fallacious responses that have always been made to immigration (except when we do it – then we are ‘expats’): that ‘we are full up’, that it will cause unemployment or housing shortages, that it will damage cultural cohesion. However, I do want to discuss an increasingly vociferous comment about the current situation that I have noticed, which is that those who think that refugees should be allowed to settle should personally offer to house them, otherwise they are hypocrites.
This seems a very peculiar logic. By extension it would mean that those who want a health service should turn their houses into operating theatres, those who want schools should hold classes in their living rooms, those who want electricity should have power stations in their back gardens or even dig the coal to fuel them. Or perhaps more pertinently that those who don’t want to admit refugees should be obliged to go and tell them why and to man the barricades to keep them out.
I am not a psychologist, but I think there is a psychological logic to this illogic. Precisely because when people, rather than ownership, move around the globe it acquires a human face, and the response therefore takes a human form. That can sometimes call forth an empathetic response. But it can also fuel a bitter anger against those making such a response, which is what fuels the ‘hypocrisy’ charge. This I think is a psychological defence against the witnessing of suffering: to say that those who insist on acknowledging that suffering are to blame.
Beyond that, there is a tendency – visible, too, in debates about poverty, unemployment and welfare – to blame the victims. In the case of refugees this takes the form of saying things such as that they should have sought asylum in the country of first entry (a dubious legal argument, and in any case a wholly unrealistic one), or that they seem to be young, healthy males who should not have abandoned their families and countries (this latter seems especially perverse – it is always those who can undertake migration who do so). Here I think the psychology derives from the terrifying fear that any of us could be poor, unemployed, ill or, in this case, displaced by war. By configuring such fates as individual failings (laziness, dishonesty, cowardice, avarice) those doing so can indulge the fantasy that it would never happen to them, since they are made of sterner and better stuff.
So these illogical responses are driven by fear and, in a certain way, a sensitivity to suffering. Yet we should not feel too much sympathy. Those fears may be psychologically real, but they hardly equate to the material reality of being bombed out of one’s home, having one’s life ripped up, and being left with no alternative but to embark on an arduous, dangerous journey into the unknown. That’s a crisis.


  1. This seems to echo your comments about the psychological dimension of western responses to the "(existential) crisis":
    In 1990 the BBC broke its record spend on a single drama when it produced the feature length film The March. It was rumoured that the UN wanted the film banned for its unsympathetic view of UN peacekeeping forces. It starred Juliet Stevenson as a reluctant EU Commissioner for Aid and Development and told the story of Europe’s response, in the futuristic aftermath of global warming, to a mass migration of Africans from Ethiopia crossing the sands of the Sahara on foot to Gibraltar and on into Europe. “We are afraid of you because you are poor. If you make us kill you then we will hate you” is the warning message that the film communicates through the words of the Stevenson character.
    From Leviathan and the Pilot Fish, Chapter 33 Pull up the EU Drawbridge.

  2. Hi ‘John’

    Many thanks for your comment which I agree echoes – and in a more profound way – the points I was making. This extraordinary notion that ‘if you make us kill you then we will hate you’, a sense that the persecutors are victims of the victims they persecute, chimes with some of the things that Tzvetan Todorov says about power dynamics in his remarkable book ‘Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps’. I am also amazed, reading chapter 33 of ‘Leviathan and the Fish Pilot’ to learn that an estimated 13,000 people died trying to get into the EU 1995-2010. It underscores my point in the post (although I was thinking more of events in North Africa and the Middle East) that the present situation has not arisen from nowhere. Thanks again.