Sovereignty, Resistance, Migration

Sovereignty, Resistance, Migration

Costas Douzinas (Birkbeck, University of London) 

Over the last thirty years, sovereignty has become an endangered concept,(1) and there is no greater sign of this weakening of sovereignty than recent events in Europe. In 2001, Jurgen Habermas and the late Ulrich Beck celebrated the coming European century and enthused about the successes of the EU. Europe had expanded to the East, the euro had been successfully introduced, and nationalism and xenophobia had been left behind.(2) The European model was the future of humanity.

The reality is so different today. The European Union is no longer a ‘cosmopolitan’ model, but a dysfunctional organisation that has betrayed its founding principles of democracy, solidarity and economic prosperity based on social justice. The foundations of Europe are shaking. Let me examine how these developments affect sovereignty, immigration and rights.

If we accept provisionally with Carl Schmitt that the sovereign can introduce the state of exception and suspend the law in order to save the social system, in Greece and Cyprus, the sovereign has been the “troika” of the European Union, the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund representing the lenders. Formally, the troika lies outside the legal order but has near absolute power to change it. Its diktat has suspended key provisions of the constitution, most safeguards of the social state and basic principles of labour law. They have imposed the most severe austerity legislation outside of wartime: the economy has shrunk by 26%, unemployment stands at 27%, youth unemployment at 55% and around 50% are in poverty.

These external attacks on sovereignty have been accompanied by two apparently contradictory internal trends: in the case of Greece, state authoritarianism and police repression has been strengthened and at the same time sovereignty has been challenged and partly unraveled through campaigns of disobedience and resistance.(3) This article discusses the treatment of migrants by the coalition government of the centre-right New Democracy and centre-left PASOK parties between 2012 and early 2015.

In the socially and politically charged situation of austerity, immigrants were the perfect scapegoat. It was not easy to blame them for the economic crisis as there were no jobs to ‘steal’ or welfare benefits to ‘scrounge’. Beyond the generic xenophobic statements by government and establishment media, immigrants were mainly attacked for committing crimes and posing health risks. During the 2012 election campaign, the PASOK Ministers of Health and Public Order announced that they would remove ‘human trash’ from city centres. In a show of power and xenophobia, highly publicised and random round-ups of immigrants were organized, leading to the arrests of a number of tourists and a visiting Pakistani academic. When their identity was discovered the police nonchalantly stated that they looked like the people they had to arrest.

Ministers then launched a disgraceful campaign against ‘foreign looking’ sex workers. They were rounded up, tested for HIV and detained pending trial for unspecified crimes. Their names and photos were publicised in newspapers and websites. The practice copied the infamous British Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s, which authorised the rounding up of supposedly promiscuous women for mandatory Venereal Diseases testing and imprisonment. As Joanna Bourke drily comments, ‘the legislation treated women as a whole as nothing more than contagious animals, while at the same time they identified the real “mute creatures” in class terms’.(4) The contemporary operation added race to class and sexuality and offered a shameful symbol of cynical biopower. The practice was allegedly aimed at protecting the ‘health’ of Greek men and families by targeting, humiliating and punishing racially ‘inferior’ sex predators intent on destroying the Greek gene pool. In Britain, the Act contributed to the rise of first wave feminism. In Greece, only the Left defended these women. When it became known that most detained women were Greek, the publicity subsided and none of these woman was ever successfully prosecuted.

The New Democracy-PASOK government promised to ‘re-conquer’ central Athens from the ‘invaders’. Once in power, it launched the ironically-named ‘Xenios [Hospitable] Zeus’ campaign to arrest and remove immigrants from cities. High profile police roundups removed immigrants into hastily put together concentration camps, euphemistically called ‘reception centres’ created out of shipping containers. A six-mile barbed wire security fence was built along the Greek-Turkish border. The Police Chief was recorded telling officers that they have to make the life of immigrants intolerable to stop them from coming. Last month a boat bringing Syrian refugees from Turkey sank off the island of Farmakonissi with nine children and three women drowning, when the Greek coastguard tried to tow the boat towards the Turkish coast at high speed causing the boat to capsize.

These are the acts of a wounded sovereignty cruelly and brutally acting out, perhaps in an attempt to persuade itself, that it is still standing. But there is another side: Athens, January 2011. While the Egyptian revolution was in full flow, 300 sans papiers immigrants from the Maghreb took refuge in Hepatia in central Athens and staged a hunger strike. They had lived and worked in Greece for up to 10 years, doing the jobs the Greeks didn’t want to do, for a fraction of the minimum wage. When the crisis struck, they were unceremoniously kicked out. They had no Greek papers, work or residence permits and were liable to immediate deportation. During the period of fake growth, their underpaid, uninsured work did the necessary ‘dirty’ jobs. When the crisis struck they were disposed of like refuse. After forty days, with several strikers in hospital, with irreversible organ failure that would lead to death, the government accepted the bulk of their demands. Crucial in that victory was the campaign of solidarity and support organised by radical social movements who kept the topic at the centre of attention despite the vitriolic attacks from government and media.

The hunger strikers, and the sans papiers immigrants, are the typical expendable, redundant humans. In a biopolitical world, life exists as registered life, minimum humanity is created through what the immigrants lacked: papiers, documents, files, IDs. To retrieve their life from this administrative void, they had to come to the threshold of death. The strikers reversed Hegel’s master and slave dialectic. They faced death in order to remove from the master the power to kill. In doing so collectively, they traced the promise of a new type of power not based on imposed or voluntary sacrifice. In those hard days of February and March 2011, their gift to the Greeks was to become the only free people in Athens and give the resistance movement its first victory.  Their gift to immigrants all over Europe was to tell them that they can collectively resist and take their lives in their hands against the iniquities and humiliations of governments, authorities and human rights fanatics. This remains the only case, in which immigrant status has been normalised outside the individual applications for refugee status or a work visa.

Sovereignty and rights
Sovereignty and rights, empire and cosmopolitanism, humanity and citizenship are not fatal enemies involved in a zero sum game. From the great declarations of early modernity to contemporary treaties, ‘natural’ or human rights are declared on behalf of a universal ‘man’ but are given only to national citizens. The gap between universal ‘man’, the ontological principle of modernity, and national citizen, its political instantiation and real beneficiary of rights, resists healing. The nation-state came into existence through the exclusion of other people and nations. The modern subject reaches her humanity by acquiring political rights of citizenship, which guarantee her admission to universal human nature by excluding others from that status. Humanity is created against an omnipresent inhumanity.

The alien as a non-citizen forms the gap between man and citizen. She does not have rights because she is not part of the state and, she is a lesser human being because she is not a citizen. The alien, now the migrant, joins the other historic figures of otherness or lesser humanity: the barbarian, the heathen, the maniac, the uncivilized and irrational – today the economically redundant, unemployed, young and old, those who drown in the Mediterranean turning it into a floating graveyard. In our globalised world not to have citizenship, to be stateless, refugee or economic migrant is the worst fate.

Neither humanity nor citizenship in their current arrangements can answer the normative question of migration. Resistances have been partly successful in the state setting and not in some imaginary cosmopolis. In this sense, local political engagement by immigrants, social movements and solidarity campaigns remain the terrain of struggle and potential success. But it needs to be expanded. Its principle should be: ‘Whoever lives in a country should have full rights to residence, work, health care, education. She should be entitled to the rights of citizens even without formal nationality.’ Such a normative principle of hospitality could revive the idea of cities and zones of asylum that public intellectuals launched in Strasbourg some 25 years ago.

The 300 hunger strikers show that the excluded, amongst them the sans papiers and migrants, represent the universal today. Supporting migrants and the excluded, and resisting sovereignty, is the only way of fighting for universal normativity today.

[This article was written before the recent electoral victory of Syriza]

(1)  Costas Douzinas, The End of Human Rights (Hart, 2000) Chapters 6 and 14.
(2)  Jurgen Habermas, The Divided West (Cambridge: Polity, 2006) 43; Ulrich Beck, Cosmopolitan Vision (Cambridge: Polity, 2006).
(3)  Costas Douzinas, Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis (Polity, 2013).
(4)  Joanna Bourke, What it Means to Be Human (Virago, 2011), 98.


Costas Douzinas is Professor of Law and Director, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London. His work has been at the forefront of British critical legal thought and the turning of legal scholarship towards ethical concerns and aesthetic considerations. He is author of numerous books including The End of Human Rights and Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis.


Image Credit: Poster supporting the 300 hunger strikers in Greece.