Migration – Emigration – Fleeing
A “metaphysical shift” in Europe?

Correspondence | Photo: © Colourbox.de/Goethe Institut Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi

Dear Georg
Time has quickened its flow along the course of this conversation. The horror of the Paris attack is yet to recede, a fresh round of attacks is underway in Jakarta, and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Earlier this week it was Istanbul.
I also read of the attacks on young women in Cologne over the New Year, the inevitable blowback, and Charlie Hebdo’s controversial illustration suggesting Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned en route to Europe, would have grown up to become a sexual molester.
The cartoon has drawn the usual reactions from the usual suspects, but it does signal a macabre closed loop of events that you refer to in your mail: the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the refugee crisis, the Paris attacks, the violence in Cologne, and then a Charlie Hebdo cartoon to round things off. As you conclude in your mail – everything is connected to everything else.
Thank you for the reference to Zizek’s piece – I had missed in when it came out; and on reading it now – I was struck by an interesting passage towards the end:
“When I was recently answering questions from the readers of Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s largest daily, about the refugee crisis, the question that attracted by far the most attention concerned precisely democracy, but with a rightist-populist twist: When Angela Merkel made her famous public appeal inviting hundreds of thousands into Germany, which was her democratic legitimization? What gave her the right to bring such a radical change to German life without democratic consultation? My point here, of course, is not to support anti-immigrant populists, but to clearly point out the limits of democratic legitimization. The same goes for those who advocate radical opening of the borders: Are they aware that, since our democracies are nation-state democracies, their demand equals suspension of—in effect imposing a gigantic change in a country’s status quo without democratic consultation of its population?”
Zizek responds, suggesting that Merkel was correct in not seeking popular consultation. He writes:
“Emancipatory politics should not be bound a priori by formal-democratic procedures of legitimization. No, people quite often do NOT know what they want, or do not want what they know, or they simply want the wrong thing. There is no simple shortcut here.”
I was interested in your perspective on this issue. What do you think about this limited section I have excerpted above?
I agree that popular consultation or a referendum would have made it politically impossible to accept refugees – but I instinctively disagree with his tired formulation that “the people” don’t know what they want, and so we need a principled vanguard to lead the way.
In many democracies, significant and irreversible decisions are occasionally solved by referendum; but it is interesting that nation states almost never call for a referendum before going to war – an epic and irreversible decision if there ever was one.
So I suppose the question is: Will the arrival of 4 million refugees to a continent of 750 million result in what you call a “metaphysical shift” in Europe – the sort of thing that should require politicians to go back to the people for their views?
Am I – by virtue of being far away – underestimating the long-term impact of Europe’s crisis ? As the optimistic resident of crowded chaotic city – 24 million and counting – I am inclined to think that we are simply in the initial “shock and awe” stage of this process, which will eventually culminate in some form of compact of coexistence between those already in Germany and the new arrivals.
I am in the midst of reading a fascinating new book – Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India – written by Bhrigupati Singh, an anthropologist at Brown University.
In his book, Bhrigu offers up the idea of “Agonistic Intimacy” – from the Greek “Agon” or “contest” – to try to understand how “potentially hostile neighbouring groups” might come together to forge a vibrant, yet contested peace by somehow including each other in their respective moral and spiritual worlds.
Living together in “agonistic intimacy” involves both conflict and co-habitation, and this subtle balance – Bhrigu reveals – has formed the basis of many human societies across time and space.
To extend this argument to the current predicament in Germany: it is possible that Syrian musafirs may not “integrate” immediately and seamlessly; but more likely the communities shall probably forge unexpected and possibly fragile bonds over a long period. Some bonds shall be largely symbolic, influential and fickle – one generation down the line, the child of a Syrian refugee might score a vital goal for the German national team or miss a vital penalty (I suppose here I am thinking of Mesut Ozil). Other bonds shall be less visible but enduring and intimate – like Syrian born workers in factories, Syrian-born nurses and doctors in hospitals. There will also be demagogues – of the likes of Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Nick Griffin, to contest and hinder this process at each step.
But is it impossible to believe that, given 20 years, these enduring bonds, prejudices, and encounters, shall converge into a mélange of myth, narrative, and ritual to consecrate the arrival of the musafir and the “recultivation” – to borrow another of Bhrigu’s phrases – of idea of the German identity and people?
The problem with Habermas’s “public sphere” – as you point out – is that he assumed that everyone will not just be rational, but will also publicly perform their rationality for all to see. This is demonstrably not the case.
A lot of politics, and most of life, is thankfully lived out of this public sphere. We are gradually realizing this in India where every week, a high-ranking government official or minister, says something implausible, violent or outright bigoted, with complete awareness that the national media shall amplify his (its usually always men) statements.
I agree that words have consequences, particularly when uttered by seemingly powerful people, but society has a fluid resilience – it coheres even as it transforms. It is this paradoxical resilience that keeps me hopeful.
Yours ever

New Delhi, 19th of January 2016