Roger Litten

In the unfolding series of Forums it is quite apt that the theme of the stranger follows on from that of democracy. We could try to situate these two themes as different sides of the same question.

Taking our reference from Freud, we could consider the notion of the strange, ‘fremd’, as the converse of the familiar, ‘heimlich’. Freud considers the phenomenon of the eruption of the strange into the space in which we feel at home in terms of the logic of repression and the return of the repressed. Lacan allows us to approach it on the basis of the mechanism of foreclosure, according to which that which is rejected within returns from without. The current politics of post-Brexit Britain suggests that it is even more alarming when what is rejected from without begins to return from within.

The figure of the refugee can serve us a point of reference in our attempts to trace the logic and the political consequences of this process. What kind of crisis is involved in this contemporary phenomenon with inextricable political, social, economic and humanitarian aspects? Amongst the different registers we could suggest that this is precisely a crisis of the principles of European democracy. This assertion might be situated in the form of a question: Is there going to be a democratic solution to the refugee crisis and what kind of solution might that be?


If we try to situate the so-called refugee crisis as the inverse, the underside, of the system of European democracy, we can ask whether the reason the refugee poses such a crisis to the discourse of liberal democracy is not because in this figure we witness the incarnation of the very element on whose exclusion that system is predicated.

It is thus the return of the refugee, the unassimilable element that our political discourse is at a loss to resolve but unable to ignore, that exposes some of the hidden conditions of the discursive configuration of Western democracy, made up of the hybrid alliance between the discourses of capitalism and democracy, held together in tenuous articulation with the principles of human rights at the foundation of the European nation state.

Under the logic of capitalism a dynamic of expansion and growth is required in order to maintain the precarious balance between the margins of production and consumption, labour and goods. There is however a point at which this dynamic reaches a limit, a tipping point where the logic of expansion and growth is exhausted and the system begins to turn back on itself.

For a long time capitalism has relied on outsourcing cheap labour in the developing world where the cost of reproduction of labour is lower. At the same time it is constantly seeking to open up new markets for the goods that already saturate our domestic market. But at a certain point this system stumbles over the contradiction between the need for cheap labour and the need for new consumers of the goods produced by that labour, most obviously when both consumers and producers come to be situated in the same location.

One response to this contradiction is the attempt to delimit new frontiers between zones of consumption and production. At the point where global capitalism has profited from the reduction of tariff thresholds to a minimum when it is a question of the export of goods, we witness the attempt to erect new barriers against the free movement of labour travelling in the opposite direction. The very notion of the frontier then begins to take on paradoxical and contradictory aspects, operating as a permeable threshold in one direction but an impenetrable barrier in the other. At the same time the border begins to operate a prismatic effect of refraction, separating out the rights of subjects as consumers from their value as the raw material of labour.

It is here that the frontier zone betrays the fiction of the attempt to superimpose these two registers as if they were equivalent, or as if one would necessarily entail the other. At the same time parallel questions begin to arise for the associated superimposition of the principles of democratic rights with those of human rights within the system of global capitalism, precisely at the point where these converge in the logic of the European nation state.

The refugee crisis, in all its forms, thus poses a critical difficulty for the assumptions of Western democracy. ‘They’ too want what we have, not simply at the level of material possessions, but also at the level of all the goods and benefits supposedly assured us by the system of Western democracy itself – security, health, freedom from oppression, freedom of speech and association, basic values of free choice and universal values of human rights.

Are we going to be prepared to grant refugees the right to a share in these goods, everything we take for granted as assured us by the system of capitalist democracy? Do they have a right to the share in these goods, or only in principle, or only at a distance, safely out of sight in their country of origin, but not necessarily as our neighbours? Or will we try to resolve the issue by ignoring it, by turning our backs on it and not wanting to know anything about it, leaving it to others to resolve these questions on our behalf?


We can consider the outcome of the Brexit referendum as one mode of response to this question. In Britain the attraction of not just turning one’s back on the problem, but of actively and materially cutting oneself off from it, is of course facilitated by the island geography that ironically served to underpin the rise of the British Empire off the back of naval power. Our topographical location thus facilitates the illusion of being able to resolve the question by simply closing our borders, separating ourselves from the source of the difficulty, and creating a hermetically sealed land mass that was never truly part of the European continent in the first place.

The Brexit campaign was played out around the logic of a fundamental alternative between the economic risks of leaving the European market and a more visceral reaction to the immigration crisis reaching its height during the summers of 2015 and 2016. The campaign to remain part of the European Union was able to produce no shortage of local and international experts to testify to the serious dangers to the nation’s economic interests posed by separation from the common market. The leave campaign was able to play on various ingrained and unarticulated fears about the consequences of unrestricted immigration.

Vocabulary of ‘swarms’, ‘hordes’, and ‘waves’ of refugees perpetuated the image of an undifferentiated mass of immigrants heading towards Calais, looking for ways to gain entry via the tunnel that links us to the body of mainland Europe. This vocabulary was integral to the governing party’s long-standing strategy of bundling together foreign nationals, economic migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and most importantly terrorists, into one single undifferentiated category of dangers to our economic, national and physical security.

The result of the referendum demonstrated, against all neo-liberal expectations, that the multiple concerns crystallised around the figure of the immigrant were able to override any considerations of economic self-interest. The threat that Islamic terrorists might be mingled in with this undifferentiated horde threatening to do harm to our safety and security, or simply to undermine the stability of our way of life, allowed every migrant to be considered as a threat to security.

The irony, of course, is that since the outcome of the referendum the question of immigration has to a remarkable extent disappeared from the centre of the political discourse. Instead we have witnessed attempts to reconfigure the logic of Brexit in terms of national and economic interest, attempts that keep running up against obstacles that testify to the impossibility of trying to square the circle in these particular terms.

In the meantime hatred of the foreign continues to bubble away at the fringes of the mainstream political discourse, as testified to by a largely unreported increase in hate crimes, attacks on foreigners or religious minorities, which have hit record levels since the referendum. The security issue, however, is never far from the top of the agenda, with constant pleas for more powers and more funding from the security services in the name of the multiple and unspecified threats to our national security constantly being thwarted in the shadows.


But it turns out that it is not only foreign nationals who pose a threat to our national sovereignty. Recent reports have highlighted the threat posed by British nationals returning from fighting in Syria. Proposals have already been passed without significant comment or opposition to strip of their right to citizenship any British national suspected of participation in terrorist activities abroad.

Unlike the resident European citizens being held hostage to the government’s negotiating strategy with Brussels over subjection to jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, stripping British nationals of their citizenship does not render these individuals foreigners, nor does it allow us to repatriate them as citizens of a foreign state. Stripped of their British citizenship but belonging to no other nationality, would these be the subjects referred to by Theresa May as “citizens of nowhere”?

The British government has for some time now been launching targeted airstrikes against their own citizens involved in fighting on foreign soil. But what then would be the legal status of these individuals once they find themselves repatriated to their land of birth? Will they end up in the same legal limbo as those still languishing in Guantanamo Bay after all these years, despite being convicted of no crime?

Under the front-page headline “Terror Alert on Jihadi Children”, the London Evening Standard recently published an exclusive interview with Commander Dean Haden, the head of the London Metropolitan counter-terrorism command. He highlighted the dangers not just of known fighters returning from Syria but also of the children born of British nationals in Syria.

He revealed that police are now carrying out DNA tests on any children being brought into Britain having been born abroad. This, he says, is in order to “establish their identity and to determine whether they have the right to live here. If a mother turns up with a stateless child born in Syria we need to be satisfied that that child actually belongs to that mother.”

Here he refers to recent comments apparently made by his German counterpart, Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, who has apparently asserted: “We have to consider that these children could be living time-bombs. There is a danger that these children come back brainwashed with a mission to carry out attacks.”

Are we to simply dismiss these concerns as the florid fantasies of the operatives of the security state? Or is it here that we are close to grasping something of the real at stake, the point at which the stranger inside us becomes truly alien, posing an explosive threat to the integrity of the social body?