Essay

Class, identity, justice

Reckoning with the ghosts of Europe

THE IMAGE IS strong and striking. It is of a young woman; her face unsmiling, her gaze proud and ever so lightly mocking – as if she knows that you are ascending the stairs to a contemporary art gallery and that you are both wishing to find works there that will confront you with the new and the audacious, while at the same time you are smugly confident that nothing you will see or experience will thrill you or astonish you. ‘Astonish me,’ Sergei Diaghilev demanded of the young Jean Cocteau. On this day in the European spring of 2019, climbing the steps of the Museum of Contemporary Art in New Zagreb and entering the exhibition space, you start off jaded; but you are astonished; and you are shocked. And you are shamed. The defiant young girl, her image in black and white, across a canvas that is over four metres tall and two metres wide, is staring down at you. Across her image is scrawled an ugly, misspelt graffiti.

No teeth…?

A mustache…?

Smel like shit…?

Bosnian Girl!

The woman in the image is the artist herself, Šejla Kamerić, and that graffiti was scribbled on the wall of the army barracks in Potočari, Srebrenica, sometime in 1994 or 1995. The unknown graffitist was presumably a Dutch soldier, part of a United Nations mission to protect the Bosnian people as the break-­up of Yugoslavia erupted into savage wars.

Kamerić’s Bosnian Girl was created in 2003 and circulated as a street poster, as a postcard and as an ‘advertisement’ in Bosnian newspapers. The intent was deliberately confrontational. Alongside me when I visit the gallery in Zagreb is my partner, Wayne, who is the child of Dutch immigrants to Australia. I squeeze his hand as he contemplates the work, takes in its varied and complex meanings. We don’t need to say anything. We’ve been having conversations about shame and responsibility for a long time now.

Since the global financial crisis started to knock over national economies from the beginning of 2008, Wayne and I have argued over the meaning and relevance of the European Union. My heritage is Greek, and throughout the last decade the shattering effects of that economic crisis have made me acutely aware of the deprivations visited on the Greek people by the great failure of neoliberalism. Throughout these last ten years, on returning to Australia from my visits to Greece, I have found myself increasingly critical of the aspirations of the progressive and liberal utopianism embedded in the expansion of the European Union after the Cold War ended. I have had to bite my tongue so very often. When Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to a million asylum seekers in September 2015, so many of my friends greeted her decision with joy. These were writers and artists, largely progressives and left-­wingers, and they saw Merkel’s decision as a vindication of internationalism and anti-­racism. But I couldn’t forget that this was the very same politician who had coldly declared in a 2010 speech to her Christian Democrat Union party faithful in Potsdam that multiculturalism in Germany ‘had failed, utterly failed’. And I could not forgive the insistence of Western European nations, at the beginning of the GFC, on enforcing the Dublin Regulation across the European Union member states while simultaneously demanding punishing austerity for Greece. This regulation makes the country through which asylum seekers first enter the EU liable for processing their asylum claims, a measure that has placed the largest burden for the care of refugees on Mediterranean nations. Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders was undoubtedly a humanitarian response to desperate people fleeing the Syrian civil war, and it was precipitated by Hungary threatening to renege on its Dublin Regulation obligations earlier in that year. But if the compassion of the Merkel decision is not in doubt – and that was precisely why my friends were cheering her on – neither was the implacable resistance from other Western European nations to heeding the longstanding concerns about both migration and the Dublin Regulation, emanating from the east and the south of the continent. The unilateralism of Hungary was viewed as only possibly mendacious and reactionary; that of Germany as progressive and humane. But in 2014 I visited the refugee camps in Patras and in the Aegean, and I met and spoke with asylum seekers in Athens who had only one desperate wish: to leave behind a host country decimated by unemployment, and find sanctuary in Frankfurt or Stockholm, Lyons or London. ‘We have no work; we have no future’ was their constant refrain. I heard it in Arabic and in Senegalese and in Farsi. And most overwhelmingly I heard it in Greek.

On returning to Australia, I had to bite my tongue as my friends lionised Merkel for her historic decision the following year to open her country’s borders. I knew that for the asylum seekers stranded in Greece I had spoken to the year before, her decision changed nothing. Then, in 2016, as Merkel’s open-­border policy unleashed a torrent of authoritarian and xenophobic reaction across the European continent, and as the EU backpedalled and scrambled to stem that opposition by coming to a venal and cowardly agreement with the Turkish state to hold back the tide of refugees, I felt my doubts vindicated.

‘See,’ I spit one night over dinner with Wayne, ‘see what the fucking Western Europeans do, they indulge in the rhetoric of diversity and anti-­racism and universalism but when it comes to the crunch the French and Germans and the Dutch, the whole fucking lot of them, all they care about is their own self-­interest. I fucking hate the lot of them.’

Wayne says quietly, ‘I’m Dutch.’

And I have no answer. I love him, I love his family. Am I talking about another Europe?

He answers my silence.

‘You have no faith in Europe.’

That simple statement stems my anger. It gives me pause.

He’s right. I have no faith in Europe.

 

IS IT STRANGE and ridiculous that we two Australians, on a summer’s evening in Melbourne, are engaged in this discussion? Why should the politics of Europe, a continent so very far from where we are, concern us so much? It must come from something we both share, something that has formed the bedrock of our relationship through three decades now: we are the children of European migrants. The experiences that formed our parents as children and young people – the experiences of World War II and Occupation, the poverty that the Netherlands experienced straight after the war, and the civil war in Greece that bifurcated and traumatised the country for decades – this is the Europe we have grown up with. It is a truism of the politics and study of migration that the migrant is often understood as having her sense of the past fixed at the point of her leaving her country of origin. Her language and her customs and her memories, we are told, are as if they have been preserved in aspic. Her understanding of home and of origin can only ever be nostalgic. The Holland and the Greece that were communicated to us as children are a Holland and a Greece that have long ceased to exist. And that Europe that was communicated to both of us as children of immigrants was a peasant Europe. That Europe is dead. It was annihilated in World War II and by the Holocaust. That Europe mainly lives today as shadows in the memories of old people in the suburbs of Sydney or Toronto or Chicago or Tel Aviv or Buenos Aires. The contemporary European, whether she was born in Romania or the UK or France or Poland, likes to be cosmopolitan and borderless and urban. And so the European now is sophisticated and educated, she is bourgeois and she is clean. That old Europe, that migrant’s Europe, that’s the past.

 

AND THAT OLD Europe, does she ‘smel like shit?’

 

‘WELL, THEY SHOULD have been paying their taxes. And their bureaucracy was completely corrupt. What was the EU meant to do? Bail them out for their profligacy? I don’t think so.’

A dinner party, in Melbourne, in 2014. I have just returned from Greece and am jet-­lagged and exhausted by what I have heard and what I have seen. The sounds and the images are still swirling around my head. The old pensioners furtively digging in the bins for food. The silent shudders and tears of my cousin who is only in her early thirties but knows she may never work again: ‘I’m ashamed, Christo, I’m ashamed, I can’t feed my child.’ The young Bangladeshi and Pakistani asylum seekers behind the markets in Psiri. Beautiful youth, already drunk though it is only midday. One of them has pissed all over his shalwar, another is brazenly shooting heroin into his vein under the bright Athenian sun.

In Melbourne, I have just met this woman who so forcefully and so arrogantly condemns the Greeks to their fate. She is a friend of a friend and she works in the public service, is an environmentalist and a supporter of the organisations that advocate and work with refugees. She is a good person, she believes herself a progressive person. She is also, like me, an Australian from a European heritage. Maybe British? Maybe with some Belgian or maybe with some Danish? From that part of Europe that don’t ‘smel like shit’?

I try to explain the consequences and hardships of austerity. I try to communicate some of what I have heard and what I have seen. She cuts me off.

‘You call yourself left-­wing. Surely you’re not defending tax evasion.’

I want to explode with rage.

And I’m ashamed of the violence of my reaction.

The conversation quickly turns to safer ground: the intellectual and moral poverty of the current Australian government. We can all agree here. At some point someone mentions Putin. The nodding becomes even more furious. I am silent as I trace a connection between what is being said about the Russians and what was said about the Greeks. If the Greeks are lazy then the Russians are averse to democracy. Greeks and Russians, we are naughty children. I push back my chair, rise and say hurriedly, I am going for a cigarette. Outside, enjoying the rush of smoke in my lungs, chilled by the still bitter Melbourne winter, my rage quiets and I begin to laugh. The old fault lines of Europe are still there. I am the only one of our party from the Ottoman and Orthodox Europe. No wonder I’m the only one standing outside smoking.

 

MORE AND MORE I find myself confused by this word: European. As a citizen of a nation built on the great colonial outrage of dispossession and annihilation of the Australian continent’s First Peoples, the term marks my responsibility and my share of this blighted history. To resist that responsibility and the shame of it would be retrograde, ethically impossible. But I keep stumbling. The same peasant past that intrudes into my understanding of being European also affects my self-­awareness of what it is to be Australian. Except, in Australia, this peasant past has been transfigured by migration to mutate into something else: the peasant became working class. That was what happened to my Greek parents arriving in Australia. Their entry was conditional on their labour being exploited; in the factories and in the quarries where they worked, and in the offices and warehouses and the private homes they cleaned. Today, their adherence to being working class is also becoming nostalgic, becoming spectral. They are now swept under the rubric of being European Australians. And the pride and the strength that was once attached to the idea of being working class is being stripped away by a new form of left-­wing politics prioritising identities of race and gender and sexuality over the economic relations of class. Denuded of strength and pride, understood as the atavistic and reactionary xenophobic politics fuelling right-­wing populism, the once militant idea of being working class has become a ghost. This change in Australia is enormous, this uncoupling of being migrant from being working class. This grand shift collapses the specificities of my parents’ generation, they are swallowed whole by the adjective European. And the adjective white.

It is Sunday lunch at my mother’s house and I am sitting with Wayne and we are gently teasing and sharing gossip with our nieces. They are smart young women. Proudly feminist and proudly anti-­racist. At one point the younger one, detailing an argument she had in class at high school over the definition of what it means to be a person of colour, turns and points to her yiayia, and she says, laughing, ‘Come on, as if yiayia isn’t white?’ A bolt of rage erupts in me. ‘Your grandmother, your yiayia isn’t white, your papou wasn’t white. The abuse they copped, the racism they experienced, the struggles they endured, that makes them not white!’

And my niece, who is bolshie and daring, and I love that about her, doesn’t back down.

‘So does that mean you’re not white? Does that mean because I’ve got Greek grandparents that I’m not white?’

‘No,’ I answer, ‘We’re white.’

‘But that’s illogical. How can you be white and your mother not be white?’

Because of class, because of history, because of ghosts that should not be forgotten. But before I can answer she turns to her grandmother.

Yiayia, what do you think?’

I translate quickly for my mother. She sits back, is clearly turning the question over in her head. And she answers.

‘I’m not black. So I’m white. But if you’re asking if I’m British, then of course not. Is that what you’re all asking?’

What is our share of the responsibility and what is the share of the shame? I think that is what we are all asking.

 

WITHOUT ANY DOUBT, class identity is argued and deployed and asserted in a multitude of ways by peoples across the globe. What fascinates me today is how the conception of class in the European and Anglophone world is increasingly being redefined and promulgated as an aspect of white identity. Though the language of intersectionality and identity politics pays lip service to class, the overwhelming sense I have is that race, gender and sexuality are always prioritised in terms of identity over that of economic status and caste. It’s what gives me the shits about the promiscuous use of the word ‘privilege’, including in Australia. I need to remain clear so I am not misunderstood: questions of class cannot be separated from Europe’s colonial and imperialist legacies, and the various diasporas created through that history. Of course, there are privileges and opportunities and freedoms that do come from the mix of gender and race identity and sexuality. I can move with greater mobility and freedom and less anxiety through urban space because I am a man. And because I am white. But the greatest freedoms and opportunities I now enjoy came about when I moved from being working-­class to being bourgeois, when I received a tertiary education and when I started working in the arts sector. Recognising that is also a responsibility. This recognition is always between the lines of what I write: my sense of obligation to the sacrifice and labour of my migrant, working-­class parents who never had such opportunities. Class can never be an academic or merely intellectual notion for those of us whose heritage meshes ethnic and racial identity together with class. This is the ghost of history we can never abandon. This is why I find myself responding negatively to thinkers and writers who engage with identity politics – but who rarely question their own relationship to class. To their academic learning. To their cultural capital. To their cosmopolitan lifestyles. Whatever their gender. Whatever their colour. Whatever their sexuality. Increasingly, over the last ten years, since the advent of the GFC, I want to ask them: where is your responsibility? Where is your shame?

 

IN EARLY JULY 2015, the population of Greece was asked to vote on a referendum on whether they should accept the bailout conditions imposed on them by the ‘troika’ – the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. On the ground, the referendum was understood by Greeks as a verdict on the ferocity of the austerity measures that had been imposed on them since the beginning of the sovereign debt crisis. I will never forget the delirium I experienced that night, in suburban Melbourne, when I received call after call from friends and relatives in Greece celebrating the defiance of the No vote. And I will never forget the shock of realising within a week that Europe and the globalised free-­market world was not going to accept that decision. Occurring in June of that year, a few months before Merkel’s decision to open the German borders, the Greeks’ rejection of the destructive burden of ‘austerity’ was one unilateral decision the EU could not countenance. Maybe because it emanated from that ‘smel like shit’ part of Europe?

Nearly a year later, I am in an airport in Canberra awaiting a flight back home to Melbourne. Someone turns up the volume on the screen above us in the gate lounge. People have begun furiously scrolling on their phones. The referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain within the European Union results in a victory for those voting Leave. Friends are madly texting and emailing, bemoaning the xenophobia and racism of the British, their ignorance and parochialism. But I have a big grin on my face. I shock myself with the euphoria I feel at this result. Yes, it is a sense of revenge. But there is also something else there; a sense of relief that the utopian progressive idealism that thought it could overcome history, and all of history’s ghosts, has received a setback. Something similar will occur for me when, months later, the people of the United States, against all expectation and prediction, vote in Donald Trump for President. Just as with Brexit, the people around me – people I love, friends who are journalists and writers and academics and artists – will erupt with vitriolic outrage and anger against the xenophobes and racists and the ignorant that dared vote in that way. Those people ‘smel like shit!’

Am I ‘those people’? I suspect this sense of having a foot in either camp is one that many left-­wing people from working-­class backgrounds will understand. It is a sense that is difficult and complex and continually evolving, and it is why I don’t wish to continue to bite my tongue. I am frightened of the reactionary elements to some of these impulses. But I am more terrified of a Manichean idealistic progressive who thinks in black and white, and divides the world into the pure and the unclean.

 

FOR A LONG forty years Europe has been telling itself a narrative that it has wanted to export to the world. Buoyed by the collapse of communist totalitarianism and the unfathomable wealth created for many in the early decades of neoliberal economics, this was in many ways a consoling and lovely story: that progress is continual and only ever humanistic, and that prosperity is possible for all. At the height of Europe’s hubris, it looked smugly across the Atlantic and even dared predict that a ‘European Dream’ would replace the promise of the American Dream.

But Europe’s submerged ghosts were always evident. They were there in the shocking poverty and unemployment that the globalised world saw as the inevitable due of Europe’s failed communist states. They were there in the accelerating economic inequality that was already beginning to polarise populations even before the GFC. They have been there for over a decade now in Europe’s contradictory and vacillating responses to the migrant crisis. And as Kamerić’s powerful, interrogating gaze reminded Wayne and me on those gallery steps in Zagreb, they were there in the great moral and political failures that preceded and followed the dismemberment of the Yugoslav state. In some ways, the Museum of Contemporary Art itself acts as a reminder of these failures. New Zagreb was developed by the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after World War II to house its expanding population in their supposedly classless future. These brutalist concrete towers and estates echo much of that period’s architecture across the cities of the former Yugoslavia, and across the former Soviet bloc. South of the River Sava, and far from the gentrified districts of the city’s northern hills, walking through the post-­industrial streets and avenues of New Zagreb to get to the museum, you sense so much other history that has been diligently erased from the tourist kitsch of today’s Old City. New Zagreb itself, as with Kamerić’s Bosnian Girl, forces you to remember history. You see that utopian dreams had consequences, and that these still affect the possibilities and the future of most Croatians. Working class still looks working class in New Zagreb: the neighbourhoods are not classless as communism promised; but neither are they the cosmopolitan present of liberalism.

It is too early to tell as I write this, but if there is a possible nail in the coffin of that utopian dream, it is Europe’s panicked response to the COVID-­19 crisis. Within weeks, in what seems nothing more than an intake of breath, European nations have emphatically closed their borders, even to one another. This response may be necessary and sound, but it confirms the primacy of the nation state in peoples’ identities and comprehensions and instincts. Progress has been vanquished by history. The ghosts are taking their revenge.

And we have been cavalier for so many decades. The term European has been insufficient. The experience of the Polish European is not identical to that of the Greek European is not equivalent to that of the Dutch European is not the same as that for a Ukrainian European. And the various experiences of Europeans in Europe’s diasporas are different again. The specific shared questions that are crucial for us as Australians – the central one must be our relationship to Aboriginal dispossession and the promise of First Nations sovereignty – will always need to be asked through an understanding of those differences. If all of us who are not Indigenous are to be understood better as part of a settler-­colonial history, then where we come from and how we got here matters. It matters in terms of how we address shame and responsibility, in how we communicate it and how we argue it. The language we use, and the politics we give rise to, and the culture and art we produce: all need to be asking harder questions and to be probing deeper.

A friend’s mother was born Christian in Greece and her father born Muslim in Albania. Whenever she hears the terms European or ‘white’ or ‘people of colour’, she asks questions: ‘Do you mean Eastern Europeans when you say European, or do you mean European colonialists? Do you think the peoples of the Ottoman Empire and those of the British Empire are of the same Europe? Are Slavic Muslims people of colour? And if so, what does colour mean? Are the Caucasian nations Europe? Is Russia?’

As a writer in Australia I think the great promise of a truly multicultural literature has been stymied by the laziness with which we have approached such definitions. This has been abetted by an identity politics in academia and in the arts that relies on simplistic dichotomies, and a facile understanding of multiculturalism that treats ethnicity and race as a kind of fashion. We’ve done the Jews and the Greeks, that was yesterday; we’re doing the Arabs and the Africans today. As though a writer from a Rwandan heritage will write in the same way as a writer from a South African heritage, or a Syrian-­Australian filmmaker is interchangeable from an Iraqi-­Australian director. I get excited when I read AS Patric’s Black Rock White City (Transit Lounge, 2015) or Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic (Brow Books, 2018) because I get a sense of what the specificities of heritage and background can do in invigorating Australian literature. These are writers unafraid of ghosts. They let the ghosts speak and they also speak back to them. The work of Indigenous writers such as Alexis Wright and Kim Scott similarly offers the hope for Australian-­English writers to become more creative and unexpected. To shock us, to astonish us.

 

DURING THE LAST few months, as the COVID-­19 crisis has changed the world and shut down borders, I have been returning again and again to that image of Šejla Kamerić, and to the crude and cruel words scrawled on the wall in Bosnia. Though, as it should, the artwork castigates wider Europe for its colossal failure to halt atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, I now sense a spectral hope underlying it. The hope and the conviction that gives the work its emotive and righteous power comes from our understanding that the different peoples within Europe, the different Europes, should not see each other as strangers, and that a common shared humanity should have allowed the Dutch soldier to see himself in the face of the Bosnian woman. That’s a great ethical ambition and I wouldn’t want it to be abandoned. As the world emerges punch-­drunk out of this pandemic crisis and as the economic orthodoxies of the last half-­century are overturned, moral questions around seeking and granting asylum, and what is due to the exiled, are not going to go away. The migrant and the refugee are not merely ghosts, they are also our present and our future. Class, too, is our present and our future. If human solidarity is not to remain a pipe dream or a utopian fantasy, I don’t think we can separate the world into the pure and into those who ‘smel like shit’.

I hope the time of our forgetting is over.

5 June 2020

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