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Tens of thousands are currently coming to Europe, hoping for a better future. They are fleeing from war, violence, political persecution and utter despair, and their hope for a better life lets them endure experiences of dire poverty, exclusion, rejection, police repression and much more on their way here. At the same time, many degrowth activists participate in numerous projects and spontaneous efforts to help and support the refugees in the communities that they end up in. They donate and distribute food, clothing, sanitary supplies and other things, offer language courses or help people cope with bureaucracy. However, most of them do not consider this kind of activism to be directly connected to or even part of their commitment to degrowth. I want to argue that, in fact, it is. And what’s more: I think that the current refugee situation in Europe is not just – as many are saying – a crucial challenge for “Europe” as a political project. It may even prove to be the very moment where it becomes obvious that Europe’s (and North America’s) imperial mode of living needs to come to an end.

Europe ends at the highway

In order for the grand historical significance of such events to reach our consciousness, it normally takes particularly iconic incidents or places that engender the tendency they stand for in concentrated form. Currently, Calais probably is such an iconic place. This port city in Northern France, continental bridgehead of the tunnel that links Great Britain to the mainland, has long been the penultimate destination for hundreds, even thousands of people who had to flee from their home countries and chose, for some reason or other, to settle down in the UK. As we’ve read in the papers and seen on the news, they try to jump onto trains, climb on trucks or sneak onto ferries to make the final journey – and in the meantime, they have found a temporary “home” in a camp on a strip of wasteland at the edge of town, locally called “Le Jungle”. Let me give a brief account of what I witnessed there during a recent short visit to the place.

What it’s like

The “Jungle” is not the first such camp here – earlier versions in and around Calais have been closed down and evicted by French authorities – but by far the largest. It has grown to a size of several thousand people – estimated range from 3.000 to 8.000 – and an end is not in sight. At this size, the “Jungle” is easily the biggest slum on European soil. Yes, a slum is what it is – there really is no better word. About half its inhabitants live in tents (most of them provided by charities or volunteers), the other half in huts, built from whatever is at hand and proudly called houses. From downtown Calais or the train station, it is about an hour’s walk to get there, passing the ferry terminal, now surrounded by five-metre-high, razor-wired, anti-climb fencing and heavily guarded by police, and then a large industrial zone, noisy a day and barely lit at night. The closer you get, the more people you meet on the street, walking to and fro, talking mostly Arabic among them and heartily greeting any stranger of European looks in English. The last thing you pass before entering the camp is a chemical plant, stinking like hell, to your right. The first tents stand below an underpass under the highway that leads to the ferryport of Calais. This highway is where Europe ends.

Beyond the highway, there’s tents, huts, a growing number of shops and restaurants people have set up in those huts, a trailer with activist medics providing medical assistance, a Médecins du Monde base that looks as if it’s been copied and pasted from any Sudanese or Iraqi refugee camp, a library hut, a makeshift school, even a hand-built church – and there’s mud. A whole lot of mud.

Of course, there’s also people here. The first thing you notice is that almost all of them are men. If you come after dark, you could think there were no women at all. That’s not true, but they seem to have good reasons not to be outside at this time. During the day, I estimated they might make up about 10% of people in the camp – children are almost nonexistent. Many families seem to have left and moved to other, smaller camps in the vicinity, where conditions are not quite as adverse as here. Not surprisingly, the most important other social category according to which people sort each other is country of origin: There’s an Afghan neighbourhood, a Sudanese one, an Eritrean and Ethiopian quarter (right next to the church), and a Syrian bit. The most common language of exchange is Arabic, whereas English is used for communication with volunteers and other non-refugees.

Abandoned by the state

The one thing that is not present there is a state. Whatever infrastructure and services is available inside the camp (except perhaps for the water supply) is provided by charities and informally networked grassroots volunteers. The police maintain a visible presence at the exit of the highway just outside the camp, day and night, and sporadically attack people in its vicinity, but they do not normally intrude. To almost all practical intents and purposes, the camp is an extraterritorial entity within France. And that’s not because people fought for their independence from the state, but because they were abandoned by it. The evident truth here is: The state just doesn’t care. That’s not intended as a complaint, it’s just stating a fact. Startling as it is to fundamentally state-minded Europeans, the absence of state authority is also exactly what opens up a space of possibilities here: The “Jungle” is one of those cracks and fissures in European normalcy within which alternatives become imaginable.

What it means

Of course, it’s almost impossible to utter this kind of thing publicly in Europe without immediately getting shouted at, along the lines of “You’re romanticizing poverty”, “You’re downplaying the violent nature of relations among people in the camp”, or even, “Oh, so you want all of Europe to live like that, do you?”. Well, no. Nobody wants to live like that, and ironically, all those people are here because they don’t. But it’s the poverty and the violence that they want to escape, not the mutual relations between humans that are more present here than almost anywhere in Europe. Living in societies that alienate and isolate people from each other and incentivize competition and ruthlessness while disregarding compassion, Europeans only seem to be able to imagine the poor and wretched as raw, selfish, uncivilised barbarians – but they’re not, because most of them do not come from that sort of society. The impression you get as an outsider is that people in the camp, hopeless as they are, are incredibly kind and gentle, much more open and even more ready to share what little they have than the majority of Europeans can even begin to imagine. No need to romanticize: There surely is violence, there are conflicts and people holding all sorts of deeply problematic beliefs – but the overall incredible peacefulness of this huge ‘lawless’ space demonstrates that people manage to find ways to deal with these things and with each other without resorting to ever more violence. Nothing about it is perfect, but imagine you left five thousand randomly selected, overwhelmingly male Europeans to themselves in dire conditions like that: Chances are people would be at each other’s throats within days. Here, in stark contrast, the amount of violence visible in the public realm – is incredibly low.

No one rules this place

What I witnessed during this day and a half in Calais was the closest I’ve seen to anarchy, in the full, literal sense of the word: No one rules this place. And this should not come as much of a surprise. After all, most people who live here are perfectly used to such situations. Coming from places where a ‘functioning’ state, capable of effectively structuring everyday life and enforcing the rules expressed in its laws on a quotidian basis, never existed, or ceased to exist years ago, many have spent most of their lives caring for their own affairs and coordinating them with those in their immediate surroundings. And once they had arrived here, they went about doing just that, because it was perfectly normal for them.

As an actual anarchic social setting, the “Jungle” is pretty much a natural environment for anarchists – and in fact, anarchist activists, mostly from Britain, do seem to play a key role among those volunteers that are actually present on the ground.

And there’s another thing that ought to be said about life in the “Jungle”: Compared to European standards, people there get by on incredibly little. The only source of electrical power are a dozen or so fuel generators that provide electricity for light, music and a chance to recharge phone batteries at some of the larger, publicly accessible huts. That amount could just as easily be generated by solar panels or a single windmill. The same goes for food, clothing, infrastructure – people here are hardly a source of demand at all in the economic sense, since they live almost entirely on what others have in excess of their own needs and are willing to freely share with them. Dire as it is: The ecological footprint of each person in the camp is practically negligible in comparison to that of a typical Western European citizen. And don’t go shouting “There you go again, romanticizing poverty”: No one suggested everyone should now go and live in unlit, unheated huts in a muddy dump. Neither should any of these people have to do that. These are thoroughly degrading circumstances, no doubt. We cry out at these conditions because they violate our understanding of basic human dignity, which, to European minds, is the cornerstone of all other human rights. In this sense, these refugees are more European than many people in France, Britain or Germany: They came here to regain their dignity, and it’s only because of the European fixation on material things that so many people here can’t see that dignity is not a question of owning a house, a car and going on holiday twice a year.

What it implies

People flee from their home countries to save their lives. They continue on to Europe because, as humans, they cannot exist without the hope for a better future and, most crucially, without dignity. Hope and dignity cannot be measured in Euros, square meters, horsepowers. Nor, for that matter, can they be measured in tons of CO2 emitted. Their one measure is equality. I have a feeling that the experience of the “Jungle” forces us to see one thing that sits uneasily with some beliefs us leftists tend to hold: It’s not just the wealth that attracts people from other parts of the world, it’s the European promises of freedom and equality – and the fact that they are not just cherished values but actually have some purchase on the way things work around here. Sure, they are by no means a reality – that’s more obvious in Calais than anywhere else –, but they are a promise that governments can only openly betray at a price. For most refugees, Europe is a promised land not because they want to drive fast cars, but for the appeal arising from the fact that its traditions of thought are built on the promise of accepting all humans as in principle equal. Only here do they see the chance of overcoming the status of outsiders, only tolerated at the fringes of society, and finding recognition as human subjects.

“Dignity, freedom are not granted by wealth, but in fact, nowadays, infringed by it”

In fact, Europe will have to learn from them. The one thing European societies desperately need to learn is that the recognition people are hoping to find here is not identical to material status, and that, in order to solve the global equality problem that is behind all this in the long term, Europeans themselves must change. They must stop equating the two and take the encounter with those fleeing here as a chance to learn anew that equality, dignity, freedom are not granted by wealth, but in fact, nowadays, infringed by it. And if we just turn the perspective around for a short moment: It might be an enormous unhoped-for opportunity, having to come to common terms with people used to living with much less and hoping for something more that is by no means just material.

One doesn’t need to be a friend of the EU to see that Europe, as an historically grown civilization and a common political project, is today facing a dilemma, the two sides of which are closely tied to the dialectic of Aufklärung. Recent European history has seen the emergence of some of the most free and equal social orders ever, and the tradition of enlightened thought compels European societies to acknowledge the general validity of a universalist principle of equality (as the core postulate of modern European self-understanding since the French Revolution’s “Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen”). At the same time, the scientific and economic potentials released by enlightened civilization have not only brought about the greatest atrocities in the history of humankind, but also spurred the emergence, in Europe and its early colonial cultural spinoffs, of a mode of living that is fundamentally dependent on permanent and permanently increasing overuse of limited planetary resources and sinks, at a level that makes it categorically impossible to even think about solving the problem of global social inequality by making it accessible to every one of the seven to nine billion people inhabiting the planet in the 21st century.

This dilemma is what those seeking refuge in Europe are confronting our societies with: The universalist and emancipatory political heritage at the heart of European modernity dictates that Europeans – people as well as governments – acknowledge their right to pursue happiness and a better life among us. Meanwhile, the knowledge that European lifestyles cannot be made available to everyone logically implies that people will have to be repelled at Europe’s borders and sent back to poverty and war – lest we accept that it is our own societies that cannot go on with business as usual. If Europe opts to stick with its political traditions, migratory movements will probably go on indefinitely, possibly leading to social destabilisation and change by disaster. On the other hand, to opt for defending its lifestyle would mean resorting to unprecedented violence and revoking all emancipatory achievements of European modernity.

“The only way out of the dilemma is to accept that modernity itself is in need of revision”

The only way out of the dilemma is to accept that this modernity itself is in need of revision: Together with those that come here to live with us, and drawing on their capabilities of self-rule and autonomous living just as well as on Europe’s tradition of universalism, we need to transform the expansive modernity of the last two centuries into a ‘reductive modernity’ (Harald Welzer). This might not end up being as cozy individually as some might like it. But it will have the great advantage of being able to accommodate everyone, and in that it will be a truly European idea. Only when this is achieved will Europe have proved able to live up to its own standards.

This, however, really requires one thing: that European societies democratise. And this is not meant in the sense of having majority decisions on anything and everything that will be enforced with the power of the state. In fact, it’s about a democracy that involves people abandoning all means of forcing others to go along, in favor of actually talking to each other, arguing about the best way, and eventually settling for things that will provide for everyone’s needs. So, in the very end, to take it back to the “Jungle”: The thing is not that Europe should expand beyond the highway, but that Europe can only really live up to its promises if it becomes more like the space beyond it.

Razor wire fence via shutterstock. Reproduced on with permission.