Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

Citizens of the World

Two things are especially striking about the massive movement of refugees into Europe: running for their lives from the fear and famine, rape and killing of the wider region, people seeking sanctuary are being greeted by the stinginess of states (“open door” Germany is the exception) and the warm hospitality of European citizens.

People crossing the border from Greece into Macedonia, en route to Hungary through Serbia. AFP

People with children on their backs and bottles of water and lumps of bread in their hands are facing untold episodes of state harassment, and state inaction. At Keleti train station in Budapest, the Hungarian government, lovers of barbed wire, “relocation camps” and border checks, in effect tried to impose martial law on several thousand stateless people hurt by torture, rape and barrel-bombing. That’s an obscenity. “Every state has the right to protect its borders,” tweeted the ill-named Justice Minister of the Orban government. Its spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, said coldly that Budapest isn’t planning to send any more buses to Austria. Janos Lazar, government chief of staff, weighed in by emphasising that Hungary had to work to complete its new border fence, to stop further “illegal” entry of refugees. Otherwise, he added, many more such people would be encouraged to come the way of the motherland.

The shameless behaviour of governments extends well beyond the front lines from where desperate peoples are fleeing for their lives. Throughout the European Union, most governments are hiding behind the so-called Dublin Regulation, which places the burden of settlement and hospitality on the state in which refugees first arrive. Signed 25 years ago, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Dublin Regulation is now a broken arrangement, even though you wouldn’t think so from the miserly statements and inaction of many heads of government. Saturday’s meeting of European foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg produced no agreement. The group’s foreign policy boss, Federica Mogherini, said the talks were “difficult” and Europe’s refugee crisis is “here to stay”. In Britain, where the government is deeply implicated in the state failure, violence, social chaos and human tragedy in the Middle East region, Prime Minister David Cameron has prevaricated. At first, he suggested Britain should not take refugees currently making their way through Balkan states or across the Mediterranean to Europe because this would help prevent others making the “hazardous journey”. Now he says Britain has a “moral responsibility” to accept up to 20,000 refugees from Syria - but over the next five years.

For several years, on the margins of Europe, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and other local states have been shouldering the massive refugee burden. You would think that richer states well beyond the region, especially those deeply implicated in Middle East dynamics, would be pitching in, especially given the scale of the developing catastrophe. Think twice. So far, the uncivil war in Syria alone has produced more than four million refugees. Many more people are coming. Yet how many Syrian citizens have so far been accepted as refugees by the United States and its allies at war with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq? The figures are shocking, and shameful: 4,980 in the United Kingdom; 1,500 in the United States; 1,074 in Stephen Harper’s Canada; and 2,200 in Tony Abbott’s Australia. Up until last year, Australia was still trying to return asylum seekers to Syria. Now the Abbott government, under mounting public pressure, says it “will step up to the plate”. The fine words are fabulations: its talk of an increased intake of Syrians is contradicted by plans to reduce refugees from other parts of the world, to ensure Australia’s overall refugee intake would remain unchanged.

In striking contrast to this hypocrisy and pusillanimity (invade Iraq and Afghanistan, bomb Syria, refuse entry to its fleeing victims), European citizens on the ground have taken the lead in welcoming the homeless. Rising xenophobia throughout Europe has for some time been the only mainstream media story considered newsworthy by journalists. Now we’re seeing a different and more charitable side of Europe: churches, trade unions, mosques, community groups and families are springing into action. Citizens hold welcome signs in English, German and Arabic at train stations. Bystanders clap. There are handshakes, flowers, smiles. Citizen volunteers offer food, hot drinks, toys for children. More than a few are offering their homes to the homeless. Petitions call upon the EU and its member states to act decisively, for instance by setting up a special ferry service from the Turkish cities on the Aegean Sea to Greece and a direct special train service from Thessaloniki to northern Europe. A week ago, 20,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Vienna in support of refugees now on the move; a few days before, a similar march took place in Dresden. And six days ago, a petition directed at the Westminster website hit 100,000 signatures, enough to require a parliamentary debate on increasing the number of people granted refuge in the UK. A few hours later, the number of petitioners had doubled, to nearly 200,000.

The hospitality, the big-hearted openness to the world, the cosmopolitanism of these citizens of the world is remarkable. It’s a reaffirmation of the principle of citizenship famously outlined just over two centuries ago by the English political writer Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809), in an exchange with his friend Benjamin Franklin. “Where liberty is, there is my country,” Franklin reportedly said. “Where liberty is not, there is my country,” Paine quipped in reply. Citizenship of any country implied for him the duty of citizens to take an interest in the fate of others. Citizenship could not be confined within the territorial boundaries of any given country. To be a citizen implied doing something about the unfreedom and injustice suffered by peoples in far-off lands. “When it shall be said in any country in the world, ‘my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of its happiness.’ When these things can be said,” wrote Paine, “then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.”

Thomas Paine, by Auguste Millière (1880)

As the present-day upsurge of citizen hospitality shows, Paine’s 18th-century vision of a decent life for all remains vibrant. Not only was his principled rejection of political despotism and social injustice more far-reaching (say) than that of Karl Marx. Paine’s practical proposals managed to combine breathtaking vision, a humble respect for ordinary folk, and a sober recognition of the complexity of human affairs.

Paine was for strong, effective government but also for government limited in scope and strictly accountable to its citizens. He supported unbridled freedom of public assembly and expression though not its licentious abuse. He favoured private property and market competition but fought for the principle of guaranteed citizens’ basic income and other tax-funded public measures to prevent society’s cruel division into rich and poor. “The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye,” he wrote, “is like dead and living bodies chained together.” And Paine, among the most prominent 18th-century cosmopolitans - practised what Immanuel Kant preached - criticising empires and backing the right of national self-determination, but only as part of a broader campaign for the global integration of citizens and states. Above all, against every form of arbitrary power and violence, Paine was a champion of decency, openness, self-government, religious freedom and rule of law. As my Tom Paine: A Political Life illustrates, he suffered, publicly and privately, for his conviction that concentrated and unaccountable power is dangerous. But there can be no doubt that he moved the world a few metres towards a new form of worldly democracy - and inspired it to move a few more metres farther after his death (in 1809).

There are signs of a renewal of public interest in the political writings of Paine, the author of the three biggest-selling books of the 18th century: Common Sense (1776); Rights of Man(1791); and The Age of Reason (1794). The young Scots political thinker Robert Lamb has just published Thomas Paine and the Idea of Human Rights. It’s an excellent book that shows that Paine was much more than a great rhetorician, plain-speaking pamphleteer, controversial polemicist and daring political actor who lived through two major revolutions. Thomas Paine was also a remarkable political thinker. Lamb’s fine work is a book of our moment. It’s the first to take Paine’s political thinking seriously, and it does so with verve, and a critical sense of urgency. I’m not sure that Paine should be described as a “liberal” who “offers a liberal theory of human rights”, or as a progenitor of the human rights liberalism of our day. But in fine prose, Lamb powerfully explores his views on the nature of representative democracy and the conditions of possibility of political obligation and good government. He shows how Paine made a case for private property ownership and citizens’ basic income; why, in the terms of international relations, he was a champion of a certain kind of cosmopolitanism (“one that accords absolute priority to the protection of universal human rights”); and how, despite claims that Paine was a “filthy little atheist” (Teddy Roosevelt), he was in fact a deist believer who thought (as Paine put it) that all forms of organised religion were “nothing other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit”.

My further thoughts on the legacy of the life and writings of Tom Paine are shared with the late Christopher Hitchens in a recent ABC re-broadcast of ‘Late Night Live’, presented by Phillip Adams.

People rushing to board a train near the Greece-Macedonia border, after evading a police cordon. AFP