You are on page 1of 5

Building Norway: a critique of

Slavoj iek
by Sam Kriss

Most of us are now grimly aware of the pernicious hydraulic metaphor for migration
the tendency in newspapers or opinion columns for movements of people to be
described in ominously fluid terms: a flood, a wave, a stream, a tide, an influx, a rising
body of stinking brown water that can only threaten any settled population. This
language isnt just monstrously deindividuating and dehumanising: when hundreds of
migrants are dying at sea, it helps to suture up any ethical laceration before it can fully
open itself. Water to water, dust to dust. Vast numbers of people children included
can sink beneath the waves without anyone feeling any need to do anything about it; its
only once bodies wash up on beaches that theres an imperative to act. So its
unfortunate, but not surprising, that The Non-Existence of Norway, Slavoj ieks essay
on migration in the London Review of Books, starts in these familiar terms: The flowof
refugees from Africa and the Middle East into Western Europe What comes next is
even more unsettling: iek compares the European response to the crisis to KblerRosss five stages of grief denial, anger, bargaining, and so on. Not just any grief,
though Europe is displaying a set of reactions strikingly similar to those we display on
learning we have a terminal illness. Migrants arent just a flood; iek resurrects a far
more nakedly racist metaphor. The internal other is a parasite, a pathogen, or a cancer,
a corrosive and polluting agent that brings death for the (healthy, homogeneous and
homoeostatic) body it infects. Of course, this is on the level of the European reaction;
hes not himself making the comparison; its something that could be very plausibly
dismissed as a little rhetorical pirouette. But it doesnt bode well for whats to come.

There are no great old Soviet jokes in this essay, no references to Hitchcock or Kung Fu
Panda, and only a brief, perfunctory mention of Stalin. Crucially, theres no Freud,
Lacan, or Hegel; not even (surprisingly, given that the question of migration is
ultimately one of hospitality) any citation of Derrida. Above all, theres nothing that
could be considered as Marxism. Which raises the question of what theory is actuallyfor.
Is it essentially just a game, a way of forming entertaining readings of pop-cultural
ephemera, to be put aside in favour of a level and pragmatic analysis as soon as Real
And Important Issues such as migration emerge? Or is it something thats actually
essential in forming a sophisticated understanding of the world, and never more so than
when the unspoken demand is that we put away our rhizomes and diffrances, and start
dealing with reality? However guilty I might be of the former tendency, Id like to believe
that the latter is true. Clearly iek doesnt agree: what The Non-Existence of
Norway gives us is an unadulterated and unmediated opinion piece, one normal mans
take, something that would be equally at home in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street
Journal or on the blog of a self-confessed political junkie.

ieks argument is convoluted and contradictory, but it could be briefly summarised

like this. The migration crisis currently afflicting Europe is (correctly) identified as the
inevitable result of successive Western interventions in the Middle East and north
Africa, along with neocolonial relations across the global South. At the same time,
migrants display an enigmatically utopian demand: they dont just want to arrive
somewhere safe in Europe, away from bombs and guns. The thousands heroically
marching across Hungary are scrambling for Austria and Germany, those forced to
camp in squalid conditions in Calais are not satisfied with France and demand Britain
instead, people risking their lives on rubber dinghies across the Aegean want to build a
good life for themselves and their children in Norway but, iek insists, there is no
Norway, not even in Norway. Life isnt fair, folks. Migrants are everywhere met with
reactionary violence, claiming to defend the pre-existing European way of life from the
invaders, but the standard left-liberal line on this is an arrogant moralism to insist
that human dignity outweighs any concerns over social disruption is merely the obverse
of anti-immigrant brutality, because it accepts that the defence of ones way of life is in
contradiction with ethical universalism. But rather than demonstrating that this is a
false opposition, however, iek seemingly out of nowhere starts valorising the
(nonsensical) view that migration threatens some posited European way of life. Should

we tolerate migrants who prevent their children going to state schools; who force their
women to dress and behave in a certain way; who arrange their childrens marriages;
who discriminate against homosexuals? After indulging in this airily speculative
rhetoricising for a few paragraphs, iek finally gets down to some serious
prescriptivism. Europe must reassert its commitment to the dignified treatment of
refugees. (Does this mean that such a commitment already exists?) At the same time, it
must impose clear rules and regulations, through a strengthened central European
authority. Migrants will be allocated a destination in Europe, and they must remain
there. They must not commit any acts of sexist, racist, or religious violence, as such
foreign types are apparently wont to do. This is because they are in Europe now, and are
no longer free to indulge in the barbarisms endemic and unique to those parts of the
world that produce migration. Such rules privilege the Western European way of life,
but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality. And they must be backed up by
brutal state violence.
There is a lot thats deeply wrong here, even beyond the obvious. The idea that the
primary problem is the flow of migrants into Europe, that Europe is experiencing a
migration crisis, rather than the far more accurate reversal: migrants are experiencing a
European crisis, one of fences and fascists and cops. The baffling notion that a lack of
sexist, racist, or religious violence is somehow a fundamental part of European life, that
these things only exist in the global South, and will be carried, plague-like, by its former
inhabitants. The sudden and unexplained invocation of the Islamic veil as the mastersignifier of non-European otherness: when hundreds are drowning in the
Mediterranean, and thousands more are imprisoned in dehumanising refugee camps, is
their expression of religiosity really the most pressing issue? ieks essay seems to be as
uninformed by bare facts as it is by theory: a vast portion of the migrants reaching
Europe are Syrian, from a middle-income country with a long history of secularism and
communal co-existence; the takfiri ideology that is currently running rampage in the
region is a foreign import, as are most of the takfiri fighters themselves. Many of the
refugees that can afford to make it to Europe are from the Syrian petit-bourgeoisie; if we
really do believe that class is a more crucial determining factor than nationality, we
should at least be open to the idea that their values and ways of life will not be too
different from those of bourgeois Europe.
Its even possible to argue that the migrants are more European than Europe
itself. iek mocks the utopian desire for a Norway that doesnt exist, and insists that

migrants should stay where theyre sent. (It doesnt seem to occur to him that those
trying to reach a certain country might have family members already there, or be able to
speak the language, that its driven precisely by a desire to integrate. But also isnt this
precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that
they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because its not
attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?) In
Calais, migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom protested against their conditions
with placards demanding freedom of movement for all. Unlike racial or gender
equality, the free movement of peoples across national borders is a supposedly universal
European value that has actually been implemented but, of course, only for
Europeans. These protesters put the lie to any claim on the part of Europe to be
upholding universal values. iek can only articulate the European way of life in terms
of vague and transcendent generalities, but here it is in living flesh. If the challenge of
migration is one of European universalism against backwards and repressive
particularism, then the particularism is entirely on the part of Europe.

This is, however, a line of argument that iek has deployed himself see his discussion
of the Haitian Revolution in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce; the moment when
invading French soldiers were met by revolutionary slaves singing the Marseillaise. (Of
course, even if all this werent the case so what? Must anyone who doesnt embody a
certain universalism be left to drown?) So why not now? Is it because the Haitian
Revolution is safely ensconced in the past, while the migrants crisis is happening now?
Is it because of the uncomfortable element of Islam (although, as Susan Buck-Morss
demonstrates, that was far from absent in Haiti)? Why, especially, does iek perform
this total abandonment of theory? His straightforward approach results in some highly
uncomfortable formulations take, for instance, the line that refugees are the price we
pay for a globalised economy in which commodities but not people are permitted to
circulate freely. Not an overtly objectionable statement, but for the juxtaposition of
price with economy. A price is an exchange-value, something that can only exist
within a certain economy. An economy itself cannot have a price without being itself
situated within some greater and more general economy one that, under conditions of
capitalist totality, can only ever replicate it. Rather than trying to form any critique of
economy as such, iek surrenders his analysis over to it. Human life must be calculated
in terms of cost and benefit, price rather than value; not just the presence of refugees

but their existence itself is figured as an unconscionable squandering of resources.

Nobody should be forced from their home, but here those people who are should instead
not exist at all. This is why theory is essential: it allows us to more clearly identify, and
resist, lines such as these.

Some of these questions might be answered by taking another perspective on ieks

essay. A properly Marxist critique doesnt just look at what a text says, but what it does,
and to whom its speaking. iek makes generous use of the first person plural pronoun
throughout, but who is this we? Only and always the settled Europeans. Its never once
considered that a migrant could be educated, that they could speak English, that they
could be reading the London Review of Books. When iek uses the vocative case, when
he directly apostrophises the reader and makes prescriptions for what they should do,
its even more obvious who hes talking to. He invokes, but never encourages, a
commonality of struggle between Europeans and migrants, or the kind of displays of
spontaneous solidarity that are already breaking out across the continent. Instead, he
directly addresses the European ruling classes, instructing them to impose rules and
regulations, to form administrative networks, to introduce repressive measures. This is,
to put it mildly, strange behaviour for a self-described communist. The Non-Existence
of Norway isnt a theoretical analysis, its a gentle word of heartfelt advice in the ear of
the European bureaucratic class, one thats not particularly interested in Lacan. For all
his insistence on radical economic change, this epistolary structure ensures that such a
change is, for the time being, entirely off the table. Hence the insistence that there is not,
and can never be, a Norway. The capitalists do not intend to make one, and iek does
not intend to address those that could. To which the Marxist response must be that if
there is no Norway, then well have to build it ourselves.