How forced migration can spark revolution at home


OPINION:Irish emigrants serve the body politic as a safety valve. But East Germans show exodus soon breeds anger, write ANDREAS HESSand GERARD BOUCHER

HISTORY, MARX claimed, repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. However, despite his wit and occasional cynicism and the fact that sometimes he got it right, it would not be the first time that Marx has been proven wrong by subsequent historical events. Looking at two recent and parallel cases, such as Germany and Ireland, a reconsideration of Marx’s famous lines might be in order.

It is already 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. For those who only know about the event from history books, let us just recall what finally accelerated the implosion of former East Germany. To be sure, there were outside factors at work, such as the impact of Perestroika, the policy of “openness” pursued by the leader of the then still-in-existence Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev; and Solidarity, the trade union in Poland that was defiantly independent of the communist government. Both certainly added a momentum to the structural crisis of East Germany’s failed economics.

Yet, if we take a closer look at how the events unfolded we find that it was the mass exodus of East German citizens which was responsible for the radicalisation and intensification of the protest at home. After it had become clear their government was unwilling or perhaps unable to initiate even the smallest of reforms, thousands of citizens fled to Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland to make it to West Germany. They literally voted with their feet to escape from leader Erich Honecker’s workers’ paradise.

It started first as a trickle but it soon became a flood. In January and February of 1989, the number of those who fled from East to West Germany was about 5,000 but, over the course of the next few months, this increased to a peak level of 133,429 in November, totalling 343,854 in the entire year.

However, if we look at the figures for the months that followed the November peak, we encounter radically declining numbers, already down to 43,221 in December and falling further in the following months.

In the same period, protesters also changed their slogans and banners. Increasingly, one could read or hear from the protesters that “We’re the people”, “We’re staying here” and “You won’t be able to get rid of us”. The turn (die Wende) had been reached and the rest, as they say, is history.

At the time, there were quite a few commentators who noticed the relationship between emigration and protest. However, no one was better prepared to speak on the subject than maverick economist Albert O Hirschman. Hirschman, a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, was himself an ex-Berliner and political exile (apart from also having been involved in European reconstruction and the Marshall Plan).

In 1970, he had published Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organisations, and States (Harvard University Press). He argued that there were three modes and related concepts that, if played with imaginatively, explained the functioning not only of firms, but really almost any type of social organisation, including states.

“Voice” stood for democratic protest and dissent, the right to be heard if one had a different opinion. In contrast, “exit” stood for leaving, for emigrating; it was a function that would only become an option if and when “voice” had been exhausted or hadn’t worked. The third concept, “loyalty”, was of a slightly different nature and referred to a place of belonging, made up of rights and obligations.

Hirschman summed up his arguments brilliantly by pointing out that there was actually a magic formula for institutional success: it was loyalty which empowered voice and kept exit at bay.

However, back in 1970, Hirschman could only note that the normal pattern had always been that exit and voice did not go together, at least not at the same time. Since the former followed the latter, they were seen as mutually exclusive modes of operation.

As events unfolded in Germany, Hirschman decided to revisit the argument of his classic study. What emerged was Exit, Voice and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic, in which he argued that instead of understanding exit and voice as oppositional concepts and modes, they were actually concepts and modes which crucially depended on each other.

Hirschman reasoned that in the East German case it had been the massive exit of its citizens that had led to amplification of the voice of those who wished to remain.

If this analysis was true, it also threw more light on how loyalty needed to be conceived. It was, to recall Hirschman’s formula, no longer just the possibility of voice that loyalty produced. Instead, exit had become the precondition for voice. Furthermore, he argued that while he previously had seen exit as being a private option and voice as being a public act, this had changed radically.

As it turned out, exit which was previously perceived as a silent and private option proved to have a major public effect, and became the trigger for a more radicalised voice.

How does all this relate to the present situation in Ireland?

The current economic crisis has led to renewed massive emigration, something that had been thought of as impossible during the Celtic Tiger years. However, unlike the case of East Germany, so far exit has not triggered any massive voice.

Quite the opposite – it has quelled it.

It is indeed amazing to see that the political culture in this country is still pretty much informed by a Malthusian argument in which massive exit is seen as a potentially healing device for the Irish economy and for those who remain.

Such a view amounts truly to a declaration of intellectual bankruptcy since its core argument depends very much on the suffering of those who have to leave against their wishes. Not only does such a position prolong dated views of emigration, it also presupposes that private options of exit are beneficial for the public good.

The apparently very widespread acceptance of such a notion is a demonstration of how cynical political culture in this country has become.

It also totally obliterates the most obvious fact, namely that by referring constantly to the possibility of opting out of worst-case scenarios, it makes their re-enactment ever more likely.

Irish political culture is more provincial than it thinks despite the mantra of being so European. Obviously, the German connection is never made and the collective lesson is unlearned before it can even take hold.

Nothing new here, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael still treat this country as if it were a family (as usual, with the wrong members in control).

Instead of giving space and allowing for voice to be heard, the current political elite in Ireland is hanging on to an outdated post-civil war consensus that automatically assumes that all voice is potentially disloyal and civil war latently waiting to happen. (By the way, that also applies to other institutions such as universities.)

It takes great minds like Hirschman’s to be open to self-subversion and self-criticism, something that not only Marx but also the Irish political elite clearly seem to lack. However, Marx was right on the farcical aspects of historical repetition.

Dr Andreas Hess teaches sociology at UCD. Dr Gerard Boucher lectures in sociology at the University of the West of Scotland. Both have migrated twice, Hess from Germany to Britain and then to Ireland, Boucher from the US first to Ireland and then, more recently, to Scotland.

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