Quarantine and consumption withdrawal: will the coronavirus teach us how to enjoy life without being consumers?

By Charlotte Culine

There is more to life than our purchasing power. Beyond the lack of social contact, the quarantine measures set in most European countries have worried more than one about its repercussions on the economy. The coronavirus has indeed, and will, in the coming months, put the neoliberal capitalist system under pressure. One of the main reasons is that middle classes are stuck at home. It means that large part of the population in most European cities has sufficient purchasing power to sustain the capitalistic system and are, therefore, the main target for multinational companies’ advertisement strategies.

Quarantined, this cherished target-group is not able to consume as much as they usually would. In a world where overstimulating advertisements are omnipresent in the urban landscape, it has become difficult to step outside without ending up consuming anything, be it to get yet another pair of jeans, or to try the new vegan Starbucks triple caramel latte – two milks, one sugar.

Over the years the aim of going for a walk in the city has shifted from breathing some fresh air to shopping. In pre-corona times, taking a round at indoors malls had become a Sunday family activity. However, being confined into our home brings up two different things: first, the levels of stimulation are lower – without undermining the important part held by the internet and television in the stimulation for consumption in western households. We might be rediscovering a more “wholesome” way of living, enjoying life without necessarily having to buy a new pair of sneakers every two days. Second, for some reason, the trendy DIY tutorials, slow-living lifestyle blogs or online cooking lessons have been thriving all over the internet in the past weeks in order to keep the confined population entertained, by promoting activities that we had forgotten about. Because, yes, those activities were common only a few decades ago.

How many times have you heard your grandpa rambling about how, back in the days, only a wooden stick would keep him distracted for weeks? Well, he had a point. Baking kanelbullar  whilst brunching on some waffles with whipped cream and lingonberry jam on Sundays, singing in a choir – yes, I live in Sweden; sculpting candle holders out of pâte à sel – yes, I am French; binge-watching the complete work of Pedro Almodóvar, knitting your another-shameful nephew’s headband, weaving wicker baskets – my bad, no one does that anymore; playing puzzles, board games, going berry-picking, gardening, painting, reading, playing music, listening to music, which are not novelties. These activities have not been invented by hipsters trying to give a reason to live to the bored and confined; they had just been forgotten in favour of consumerism.

What about this European way of life that so many people have defended against the insidious settlement of mass-consumption-centred society creeping into our daily routine? Praising the arts, cherishing our social welfare system, agitating with pride the work of the great minds who lived on our continent, perpetuating our traditions, debating over our turmoiled and sometimes shared History, and embracing our differences and regional specificities, from the delightfulness of Italy’s cuisine to the rudeness of its drivers… This is what binds us. And this was even before climate change was an acknowledged issue for the sustainability of our societies. Never was over-consumerism a part of the European lifestyle. [1]

Maybe this coronavirus pandemic and the confinement forced upon people a reduction of consumption on the long term and the rediscovery of forgotten traditions. Maybe this 2020 is the modern version of the Enlightenment Period, moving away from another type of dogmatic Church this time [2]. It will have a strong impact on our habits and values, and finally the changes that our societies have been needing will come.

The boomerang effect

You might reach this point of this article thinking: Charlotte, don’t be a fool, as soon as the quarantine is over, the population will run into the stores and rush themselves into consuming anything they saw in advertisements during their time spent at home. And you would have a point. We shall not forget that, thanks to online shopping, no one needs any longer to pass their front door to find themselves in the socks section of almost any retail store on Planet Earth. We shall not forget the images of possessed-like people stepping on each other to reach the last full HD Led TV screen during Black Friday [3], fighting for the last 950-grams-Nutella-jar for only 1 euro and 41 cents in France [4], or camping in tents at the gates of Apple stores, just to be sure to get the latest version of the Iphone. [5]

The power of merchandising and marketing over the human mind and desires should not be undermined, and a possible boomerang effect leading to a peak of consumption directly after the end of the quarantine period, some kind of binge-buying to make up for weeks of frustration, can be expected. Shall we, nevertheless, just for once, force ourselves into optimism, and hope that at least for a part of the population, this short but intense episode in our lives will have given room for reflection, and will have taught us a lesson: we can be human beings before consumers.

We can be human beings gifted with brains with unexpected-and-not-necessarily-productive creativity, building the first “Applause machine” [6] and passionate for the small things which make life more ironic and senseless than meaningful, as Nathan W. Pyle [7] describes it. We can be human beings gifted with ears, hands, eyes, tongues and nostrils which would rather be used to enjoying all the aspects of freshly baked home-confined-made Irish scones than the arsenal of superficial sense simulators carefully set up in stores with the purpose of getting us to purchase an item. [8]

A little bit of self-checking: room for thoughts

In order to avoid as much as possible the boomerang effect, to all of my dear readers finding themselves in forced or self-quarantine at the moment, going through this article out of boredom, stubbornly unconvinced by the last paragraphs, allow your mind to wonder: restrained from the outside world, what do I need now? Forgetting about all of the marketing tricks which have created superficial needs in our minds, it is time to ask ourselves: what is necessary to my well-being? Is it social contact? Is it the feel of the breeze on my cheeks on a sunny early-spring afternoon walk? Is it the last Apple Watch? Do I miss the last Apple Watch? Do I need the last Apple Watch?

Without having to question our needs, but rather something definitely more human, our desires, let’s ask ourselves: what do I dream of now? Would I rather invite friends over and start a baking competition of the best Trump looking-like gingerbread cookie, or would I prefer to hang out in H&M for three hours deciding between a T-shirt made in Bangladesh, or the one made in China?

What if the most threatening factor to the capitalist system in times of Covid-19 was not only the world’s economic stagnation but rather the power of realization of individuals of their own freedom?

We will be free from consumerism by finally realizing that these needs of consumption were not real but constructed. That there are other ways to entertain ourselves than going for a Sunday walk at the closest mall. What better times for taking ownership of our free will than the time of constraint?

This article itself pinpoints the silliness of the situation: having to advise Western people to restrain themselves from over-consuming and heading back towards more traditional lifestyles while other parts of the world, or of their own society, are starving from poverty. Additionally, the implementation of more “wholesome, healthy and green” habits emerging from pure intentions, could turn very rapidly to hypocrisy, eating 15 Chilean avocados per week while living in Berlin. It could as well be pushed to its extreme, deciding to live secluded, becoming an anti-technology, collapsology theorist hermit living in Ardèche growing its own tobacco plants. It does not mean, however, that this message should be overlooked or ignored, nor that there is no right-middle to be sought for.

Finally, and before this article falls completely into the ongoing moralizing preaching contest, let this unfortunate, world-wide experience have the only possible positive impact on our futures. Being confined home, let’s reflect on our habits and try to set our priorities straight. After such a widespread and globalized situation, it might be time to ask ourselves: what kind of society do we want to go back to?

Picture: Colton Vond, Flickr

Sources:

[1] Understand me here: consumerism is inherent to Europe’s history of trades and expansionism tendencies, with the discovery of spices, fabrics, metals, porcelain, along the Silk Road and all over the planet. These commodities were, however, considered as a luxury and consumed with care and attention. Over-consumerism though, engenders quite different habits and almost compulsive behaviours and lifestyles. 

[2] L’Église de la Très Sainte Consommation, http://www.consomme.org/ 

[3] ‘Black Friday: Fights Break out after Shoppers Queue All Night For’, The Independent, 28 November 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/black-friday-police-called-to-stores-across-britain-amid-crowding-fears-9889137.html

[4] Kim Willsher, ‘“They Are like Animals”: French Shoppers Brawl over Cut-Price Nutella’, The Guardian, January 26th, 2018, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/26/ce-nest-pas-normal-french-shoppers-bra-over-discounted-nutella

[5] Rhiannon Williams, ‘IPhone 6 Fans Camp Outside London Apple Store’, The Telegraph, 9 September 2014, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/apple/iphone/11084402/iPhone-6-fans-camp-outside-London-Apple-store.html

[6] ‘Simone Giertz’, YouTube, accessed 31 March 2020,  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3KEoMzNz8eYnwBC34RaKCQ

[7] Don’t know him yet? Go check out his Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/nathanwpylestrangeplanet/

[8] Texas A&M University B. S. and Facebook Facebook, ‘Psychological Marketing: How Our Senses Sell Us’, ThoughtCo, accessed 31 March 2020, https://www.thoughtco.com/sensory-marketing-4153908

Pushing the limits of the European Union: What is the Hungarian government really aiming for?

By Dorottya Kósa

Over the past few days, my international friends have been bombarding me with questions concerning the new emergency law in my home country, Hungary. Receiving messages full of worries and having to pick up the phone to answer questions about the collapse of democracy in Hungary encouraged me to write this article. I hope to clarify certain things about the new legal realities and how it in fact did not change Hungary’s political powers.

Crash course on the legal framework of Hungary

Article No. 53 (State of Danger) of the Fundamental Law – the Constitution of Hungary – covers special legal orders for extreme circumstances such as a national crisis or a state of emergency. In a state of danger the government has the power to adopt means to suspend the application of certain acts, deviate from them, and take extraordinary measures. [1] As Article No. 53 declares, the means shall remain in force only for fifteen days, but the National Assembly can extend their power by voting every second week. The fourth paragraph pronounces that “upon the termination of the state in danger, such decrees of the Government shall cease to have effect.”

The definition of the state of danger is specified in Act No. CXXVIII of 2011, which focuses on disaster management. Based on this Act and on the Fundamental Law of Hungary, the governing party, Fidesz, declared the state of danger in the current situation of global pandemic. [2] Shortly after, on 30 March 2020, the Hungarian parliament with 138 votes for, and 53 against had passed the bill on the Coronavirus Protection Act (2020.évi XII. törvény a koronavírus elleni védekezésről). [3]

Absolute power or powerful absolute

The new law allows the government to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, until the state of emergency is over. [4] According to the Coronavirus Act, the Government may exercise its powers to the extent necessary and proportionate to prevent, treat, eradicate the epidemic and to prevent or eliminate its harmful effects. [5] There were immediate accusations of abuse of power by many international media channels, as they feared the destruction of democratic values in Hungary.

However, putting on our “reality check glasses,” not much has changed in Hungarian politics with the passing of the Coronavirus Act other than at the theoretical level. Viktor Orbán’s party has two-thirds of the seats in parliament since 2010. Fidesz has the majority of votes and the power to change and construct (or deconstruct) the legal system in their favor. [6] Even without the new law that gives Orbán unprecedented emergency powers, the Fidesz-dominated parliament could theoretically extend the state of danger as long as they wish.

The trap is ready

On 31 March 2020, just one day after the two-thirds passed the Coronavirus Act, Viktor Orbán said in a Facebook video that “the opposition parties did not vote for the state of danger’s prolongation. Our boat got a leak.” What he meant by the video message is that the opposition does not take the pandemic situation seriously enough and would endanger the health and safety of Hungarian citizens by voting against the Corona Act. However, the opposition voted against the bill because they wanted it to have a defined time period.

Since Fidesz already had the power of majority, this Corona Act might just be another populist trick for the approaching national elections. Framing the opposition as the ‘other’ that is counterproductive in times of crisis fits perfectly within the party’s rhetoric. Hence, this pandemic could be another opportunity for Orbán to stay in power and heighten populist narratives of strong leadership. As a global economic crisis emerges, the pandemic can cause governing regimes to lose large parts of their voting bases. [7] However, if ruling parties handle the corona crisis well, they might gain even more supporters than before.

Gábor Török, a Hungarian political scientist, said he would not be surprised if Fidesz would propose an early national election right after the pandemic crisis. He suspects a trap set for the opposition – which they directly walked into. [8] Yet Fidesz already has a well-established ground with its two-third majority and they did not really need the new Coronavirus Act to stay in power. Were all these efforts only to fool the opposition while generating international outrage and risking aid restrictions from the European Union?

Pushing the limits

The passing of the Coronavirus Act resulted in center-right political leaders asking Donald Tusk to expel Fidesz from the European People’s Party (EPP). [9] This happened before, for instance during last year’s European Parliamentary elections, when the EPP was reluctant to include Orbán’s party after controversial debates from member parties. However, the EPP needed the Hungarian votes and knew Fidesz supporters will be active and participate in forming the future of the EU. [10]

The EU is keeping a close eye on Hungarian politics since the report of Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini expressing concerns regarding the government’s abuse of migrants, restrictions on press freedom, corruption and conflicts of interest, and “stereotypical attitudes” towards women. [11] Sargentini called for urgent measures evoking Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union that permits the EU to suspend certain rights of a member state. However, the article does not contain any information on possible mechanisms to expel a member. Already two years had passed since the process initiated, but no sanctions were imposed so far. Moreover, Fidesz used the charges of the EU to build and strengthen their nationalist, Eurosceptic narratives.

On 2 April 2020, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed her concerns regarding the developments in Hungary saying that Orbán’s measures went too far. [12] Yet once again there is no real action taken, and the issue stays on the rhetoric level. Currently, it looks like the Hungarian government is winning this battle: It looks like the EU is unlikely to impose punitive measures on Orbán, Fidesz, or Hungary. [13]

To sum it up

Viktor Orbán managed to convert the communist Hungary into a vibrant democracy, only to then transform it into a semi-autocratic member state of the European Union under only one political party’s ruling. Since Fidesz has the majority of the seats in the Hungarian Parliament, it has all the power with or without the Corona Act. Warning words of European leaders will not scare Viktor Orbán. In fact, they work counterproductively, since they provide the Hungarian Prime Minister with new narratives about the incompetence of the EU. You could say that Orbán has won because of the European response. It is likely the Hungarian government will continue strengthening its grip on power by outplaying and weakening the national opposition, thereby further challenging the democratic stability and the credibility of the European Union.

Picture: Pedro Antunes, Flickr

Sources: 

[1] “The Fundamental Law of Hungary (25 April 2011).”

[2] “Act No. CXXVIII of 2011 Concerning Disaster Management and Amending Certain Related Acts.,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://www.ecolex.org/details/legislation/act-no-cxxviii-of-2011-concerning-disaster-management-and-amending-certain-related-acts-lex-faoc129205/.

[3] Arató Gergely, Móring József Attila, and Tordai Bence, “Országgyűlési Napló, Kövér László, Jakab István, Dr. Latorcai János És Lezsák Sándor Elnöklete Alatt, 2018-2022. Országgyűlési Ciklus, Budapest, 2020. Március 30. Hétfő 115. Szám,” March 30, 2020. https://www.parlament.hu/documents/10181/1569934/ny200330_.pdf/1645e5f4-1225-c261-e3f9-5d62280faf7d?t=1585888197151.

[4] “Index – In English – Hungarian Coronavirus Act Passes, Granting Viktor Orbán Unprecedented Emergency Powers,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://index.hu/english/2020/03/30/hungary_coronavirus_act_parliament_viktor_orban_fidesz_sweeping_powers_indefinite_term/

[5] “2020. Évi XII. Törvény a Koronavírus Elleni Védekezésről,” Magyar Közlöny, March 30, 2020, http://www.magyarkozlony.hu.

[6] “Hungary Election Gives Orban Big Majority, and Control of Constitution – The New York Times,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/world/europe/hungary-election-viktor-orban.html.

[7] Philipp Carlsson-Szlezak, Martin Reeves, and Paul Swartz, “Understanding the Economic Shock of Coronavirus,” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/understanding-the-economic-shock-of-coronavirus.

[8] “Török Gábor: Előrehozott választások felé viheti a kabinet az országot | Mandiner,” mandiner.hu, accessed April 5, 2020, https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20200326_torok_gabor_elorehozott_valasztasok_fele_viheti_a_kabinet_aorszagot.

[9] Sarantis Michalopoulos, “Centre-Right Leaders Ask Tusk to Expel Orban’s Fidesz from EPP,” http://Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 2, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/centre-right-leaders-ask-tusk-to-expel-orbans-fidesz-from-epp/.

[10] “Fidesz: ‘We Are EPP’s Most Successful Member Party and We Oppose Migration,’” Hungary Today (blog), May 27, 2019, https://hungarytoday.hu/fidesz-ep-election-epp-migration/.

[11] Alice Cuddy, “European Parliament Votes to Trigger Article 7 Sanctions Procedure against Hungary,” euronews, September 12, 2018, https://www.euronews.com/2018/09/12/european-parliament-votes-to-trigger-Article-7-sanctions-procedure-against-hungary.

[12] “Von Der Leyen ‘concerned’ over Hungary Virus Emergency Law,” http://Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 3, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/von-der-leyen-concerned-over-hungary-virus-emergency-law/.

[13] “Hungarian Press Roundup: Article 7 Procedure against Hungary,” Hungary Today (blog), September 19, 2019, https://hungarytoday.hu/hungarian-press-article-7-rule-law/.

Bibliography:

“2020. Évi XII. Törvény a Koronavírus Elleni Védekezésről.” Magyar Közlöny, March 30, 2020. http://www.magyarkozlony.hu.

“Act No. CXXVIII of 2011 Concerning Disaster Management and Amending Certain Related Acts.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://www.ecolex.org/details/legislation/act-no-cxxviii-of-2011-concerning-disaster-management-and-amending-certain-related-acts-lex-faoc129205/.

Arató Gergely, Móring József Attila, and Tordai Bence. “Országgyűlési Napló, Kövér László, Jakab István, Dr. Latorcai János És Lezsák Sándor Elnöklete Alatt, 2018-2022. Országgyűlési Ciklus, Budapest, 2020. Március 30. Hétfő 115. Szám,” March 30, 2020. https://www.parlament.hu/documents/10181/1569934/ny200330_.pdf/1645e5f4-1225-c261-e3f9-5d62280faf7d?t=1585888197151.

Carlsson-Szlezak, Philipp, Martin Reeves, and Paul Swartz. “Understanding the Economic Shock of Coronavirus.” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/understanding-the-economic-shock-of-coronavirus.

Cuddy, Alice. “European Parliament Votes to Trigger Article 7 Sanctions Procedure against Hungary.” euronews, September 12, 2018. https://www.euronews.com/2018/09/12/european-parliament-votes-to-trigger-article-7-sanctions-procedure-against-hungary.

Hungary Today. “Fidesz: ‘We Are EPP’s Most Successful Member Party and We Oppose Migration,’” May 27, 2019. https://hungarytoday.hu/fidesz-ep-election-epp-migration/.

Hungary Today. “Hungarian Press Roundup: Article 7 Procedure against Hungary,” September 19, 2019. https://hungarytoday.hu/hungarian-press-article-7-rule-law/.

“Hungary Election Gives Orban Big Majority, and Control of Constitution – The New York Times.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/world/europe/hungary-election-viktor-orban.html.

“Index – In English – Hungarian Coronavirus Act Passes, Granting Viktor Orbán Unprecedented Emergency Powers.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://index.hu/english/2020/03/30/hungary_coronavirus_act_parliament_viktor_orban_fidesz_sweeping_powers_indefinite_term/.

Michalopoulos, Sarantis. “Centre-Right Leaders Ask Tusk to Expel Orban’s Fidesz from EPP.” Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 2, 2020. https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/centre-right-leaders-ask-tusk-to-expel-orbans-fidesz-from-epp/.

“The Fundamental Law of Hungary (25 April 2011).” Ministry of Justice, 2017. https://www.kormany.hu/download/f/3e/61000/TheFundamentalLawofHungary_20180629_FIN.pdf.

mandiner.hu. “Török Gábor: Előrehozott választások felé viheti a kabinet az országot | Mandiner.” Accessed April 5, 2020. https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20200326_torok_gabor_elorehozott_valasztasok_fele_viheti_a_kabinet_az_orszagot.

http://www.euractiv.com. “Von Der Leyen ‘concerned’ over Hungary Virus Emergency Law,” April 3, 2020. https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/von-der-leyen-concerned-over-hungary-virus-emergency-law/.

Covid-19: how will Europe get back up?

By Hannah Bieber

Disclaimer: this article was written on March 18th, 2020. Due to the instability of the situation, some of the information it contains might be subject to changes.

A lot of people were expecting it, and it finally happened: the world we live in has been challenged. Not the way we imagined it, not in the circumstances we expected, but it did. Europe is now facing one of its major crises since the day the European Union was created. And all the flaws that we knew that existed blew up in our faces. The demography of an old continent getting older and older, the weariness of our welfare states system, the instability of our financial organizations, the limits of a space without borders and the emergence of nationalism have now all been crystalized by a microscopic organism.

The recent Covid-19 outbreak and confinement measures will give us plenty of time to reflect on the consequences it will have on our societies, especially in Europe. Indeed, this virus is almost harmless for the majority of the population, but can be very harmful for the elderly, for instance. In 2016, one EU citizen out of five was over the age of 65. This is why the virus poses Europe an immense challenge today. But what about tomorrow? What will be the consequences of this crisis for the EU?

First of all, in my point of view, the way the virus spread will inevitably lead to the questioning of border control and the Schengen Area. While the free circulation of people is protected by the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), this crisis has led some member states to close their borders unilaterally. Moreover, on March 16th, the EU decided to close its external borders in order to prevent infected third country nationals from entering the old continent. When the crisis is over, populist parties will probably push even harder to reestablish border control or exit the Schengen Area. One can easily imagine far-right parties using this new fear of epidemics in order to convince people that this is now a necessity.

Besides, the financial system of the EU will have to be rethought. The instability of our capitalist economy has been brought to light in the harshest of ways. When the crisis hit China, the stock markets started panicking, but when it reached Europe, they went down. The financial crisis intertwined with a very complicated economic situation. In many European countries like Italy, Spain, France or Poland, stores and shops that are not considered necessary were closed in order to keep people home. Thus, the State has been responsible for helping the firms and workers who were asked to cease their activities. To cover the losses and ensure the safety of their people, the states will have to implement new economic strategies during and after this period. For instance, Peter Altmaier, the German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, mentioned the possibility of temporarily nationalizing some firms. After the outbreak, the EU will have to rethink its financial and economic rules and objectives because we will probably face a period of recession.

This goes hand in hand with the reorganization of our health systems. What this crisis revealed, above all else, is the fact that we cannot keep cutting corners into our health budgets. Scientists and activists had been warning that such outbreaks would happen in the coming years due to climate change. This crisis interrogates the model of welfare states that still want to remain competitive in a globalized economy – because they do not really have a choice. Ensuring people’s health and making sure that there are enough doctors, nurses and that the facilities are well equipped is a vital element that many states seem to have been forgetting.

In France, for example, although no one could have predicted the outbreak, hospitals had been on strike and protesting for months, asking for more beds to be available, for more staff, and for the improvement of their facilities and working conditions, but had barely been heard by the government. And France will probably take a heavy toll because this call for help was taken too lightly. This crisis has shown that our states must not treat the health sector like any other economic activity and ask hospitals to be more efficient with less tools and staff.

The Covid-19 will also raise questions about the future of our democracies. After the start of the outbreak, some have applauded the way China handled the crisis. Indeed, it succeeded in controlling the problem, and the country slowly comes back to life, after two months of quarantine. But this situation was also handled thanks to Xi Jinping’s iron fist and the surveillance means available in Beijing. In a democracy, it is harder to control people. As a proof: EU citizens did not stop living because of the virus. They kept on going out and acted carelessly – sometimes recklessly. By making the choice of democracy, Europe also gave its citizens the right to do what they wanted. And in this case, in some countries, a lot of people decided to care more about themselves than their community.

This pushed some EU governments to close most venues where people gather and interact, because EU citizens failed to implement the social distancing preconized by scientists. In Italy, Spain and France, the State had to impose harsh confinement measures, which violate fundamental individual liberties, such as the right to gather or the right to move freely. But these measures were taken after people did not change their behavior to contain the virus. This raises an interesting philosophical debate over people’s liberty. Where does our liberty start and where does it have to stop? Did we reach a point where people have too much liberty? This is something that we will need to reflect about.

This also boils down to the question of social media, and media in general. The fact that we are constantly exposed to a somewhat overwhelming flow of information has worsened our feeling of being powerless and anxiety. It has also contributed to the misinformation of people, and ultimately could explain why they behaved in a careless way, sometimes. When the outbreak started in China, the Covid-19 was a ‘mystery pneumonia’. Then, the media depicted it as a bad flu, which could cause complications for most vulnerable people. The French government’s spokeswoman herself assured on live public radio that it was not a lot more dangerous than the flu itself. In this context, one may understand why Europeans did not take the illness seriously. How could they?

This situation even led the European Commission chief to acknowledge that EU leaders ‘underestimated’ the virus. On top of all the contradictory information came the infamous fake news that helped to create an atmosphere of defiance towards authorities at some occasions, with conspiracy theories, or fear at others. Despite their pledge to tackle misinformation, the social media – or people in general – have utterly failed to do so. Could the EU do more to help to control this kind of content in the future? On the other hand, more control over social media content could also lead to abuses from some governments. How will the EU tackle the issue of fake news all the while preserving people’s freedom of speech in the future?

Last but not least, this crisis will try the EU’s unity. All the elements cited above could compromise the future of the Union. Besides, this crisis revealed that, while nations came together – as we saw with the balcony gatherings to applaud hospital staff in Spain, for instance – to face the crisis, they acted as individual states. Few decisions have been taken at the EU level to handle the outbreak and some people have wondered ‘where is the EU, now?’ The crisis is not over yet, and the union will maybe react, but this critical moment has shown that nationalism prevailed over it in such a situation. Even if people have shown their support to their EU citizens counterparts – and this has been all the more true in the context of the Euroculture Master – they seem to care about themselves first, their country second and sometimes their fellow EU citizens third. However, now that ‘Europe has become the new epicenter of the pandemic’, it will maybe come together to face this new challenge. Only the future will tell if it will emerge stronger or more divided than ever from this crisis.

All in one, the Covid-19 outbreak will leave the EU with a lot of challenges, on top of the ones that it was facing before the illness reached our shores. But Europe will get back up. It has been through worse and has still managed to rise from its ashes. Some argue that this crisis will start the beginning of its end. But what if it marks a new beginning? This is the opportunity for the EU to show that solidarity and mutual care are at the core of its existence, rather than financial or economic concerns. Let’s hope that it will learn from its mistakes and grow stronger, so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Picture: Sean MacEntee, Flickr

Communicating solidarity in trying times: La radio per l’Italia

By Arianna Rizzi

« Are you ready? We are going to live an unprecedented moment of union. For the first time in Italy’s history, all the radios unite in an extraordinary moment of sharing and participation to celebrate our great country – Italy – with music … »

On 31 December 2019, the first Chinese cases of a novel virus were notified to the World Health Organisation (WHO). At that time, what we now call “coronavirus” had a different name – “2019-nCoV” – and seemed to concern only an area remote in space and time from the Western world. But it was not long before COVID-19 had its outbreak in Europe, and Italy was among the first countries to be hit by the epidemic – now declared a pandemic – in the European region.

We all know by now how things have escalated in China – which, as of 20 March, has registered none new locally transmitted cases for a second day – as well as the dramatic pace at which they still are escalating in Italy, France, Germany – and globally. As the states implement more and more stringent measures to slow down the contagion and avoid the collapse of the different national healthcare systems, we find ourselves mostly confined in our homes: in fact, while a vaccine for COVID-19 is being developed, we have to act like a social vaccine and practice physical social distancing in order to not get infected ourselves and not infect other people.

In Italy, the government led by PM Giuseppe Conte decided for a first, selective lockdown on 22 February, when eleven municipalities in the north of the country were declared “red zones”. The measures were soon extended to entire regions (Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont) and finally, on 9 March, to the whole country. This concretely means that in Italy, several citizens have been in quarantine for almost a month.

In these trying times, many are the initiatives through which Italians have tried and reinvented togetherness, in order to cope with the disruption of our daily routines and social life – from “balcony flash mobs” to live Instagram “concerts from home” and free access to a variety of digital services and products (streaming platforms, ebooks, etc.). It is in this spontaneous framework of grassroots and top-down solidarities that La radio per l’Italia places itself, also as an unprecedented event in the (Italian) history of communication.

Through the brainchild of Radio Italia’s vice-president Marco Pontini, La radio per l’Italia brought simultaneous radio broadcasting to life for the first time in Italian history. On 20 March, at 11 a.m., all the Italian radio stations – both public and private broadcasters, both national and local stations, all at the same time – joined forces and played the same four songs: Inno di Mameli – the Italian national anthem – Azzurro by Celentano, La Canzone del Sole by Battisti and Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare) by Modugno.

But let’s take a step back to better grasp the sociological relevance of such an event. As humans, we are currently seeing our primary form of sociality – face-to-face interaction – cut down to the bone, because it itself represents a danger to the survival of our societies. Media, as (alternative) means of communication, become then even more prominent: provided that, already in normal circumstances, they allow us to stay informed, keep in touch with our loved ones and stay connected to our local and national community wherever we are, we see how their role becomes vital in a time when even a simple encounter with a friend represents too much of a social risk.

In this historical and historic moment in which media are almost all we have left to maintain our sociality, what does it mean to broadcast the same message, at the same time, on all the available (radio) channels? Most likely, it means trying and uniting a nation by means of what John B. Thompson called “despatialised simultaneity”: mass media – and especially radio, TV and Internet broadcasting – allow people to experience an event as simultaneous, regardless of where they are and where the event is taking place. For instance, when we switch on the television and tune in to a certain channel to follow the news, we understand that many other people might be doing the same. Some of us will in fact be seeing the same images, listening to the same updates, at the same time – but each in their own home. This mechanism becomes yet more evident in the occasion of big happenings: a presidential discourse, the Olympics, a royal wedding.

In the case of La radio per l’Italia, despatialised simultaneity was pushed to its extreme: not one, not many, but all the Italian radio stations jointly decided to offer the same 10 minutes of music, and by doing so they merged their particular audiences into one – that of the Italian people. Anyone – from Milan to Campobasso, from Udine to Messina – turning on the radio around 11 would in fact be listening to the same four songs. A powerful initiative, considering the cultural and patriotic value of the songs chosen. A brief, yet nationwide “event” – of which the effective audience still has to be determined – that proves that mass communication can also serve as a privileged bearer of solidarity messages.

Picture: Pietro Luca Cassarino, Flickr

What the hell is (still) going on in Chile?

Interview conducted by Guilherme Becker

Since October 2019 Chile is (almost literally) on fire. Just to have an idea of the situation, let’s start taking a look at some numbers regarding the protests that since then erupted against the government and the whole social and economic system in the South American country: At least 30 dead as well as thousands injured and jailed. Among the injured, many went blind because of rubber bullets shot by police – it is estimated that more than 200 people have got eye problems. The demonstrations have also affected the daily life, the public transport and the political spectrum. Monuments, buildings and historical places have been constantly damaged, as the streets are still full of people angrily protesting.

That is the summary of something that might have been postponed for decades.

During my internship at Deutsche Welle, in Bonn, I had the opportunity to meet people from different newsrooms. DW has newsrooms in more than 30 different languages, so imagine that it is a piece of the world inside its own world. One of the journalists that I met was José Urrejola, from Chile, who has been covering the whole situation and its developments. With a local perspective but also through an international coverage of the facts, in this interview he explains what is going on in his country, and explicitly argues that “the protests will continue until this president resigns or a ‘miracle’ happens, and he decides to make the changes that people are asking for.”

Euroculturer Magazine: What is actually happening in Chile? Tell us a little bit about the paths that the country took in the last decades and also why the protests erupted now, by the end of last year.

José Urrejola: Firstly we have to put it into context. From my perspective as well from the perspective of many other political experts and scientists, the current problems of Chile originated mainly in the periods of dictatorship and post-dictatorship. During this dark period in Chilean history, with Augusto Pinochet in power, the country established a constitution in which, among other things, gives the country’s economic elite the power to buy and sell whatever they want. Private property is stronger and more protected than what belongs to the state. That has led, for example, to the fact that even something as basic as drinking water supplies belongs to private companies. Even though Chile has actually grown economically speaking after the dictatorship, the wealth has been accumulated among families of the economic elite, and only a small percentage of this money goes to other social classes. The people in Chile are not protesting because of lack of food or because they cannot buy shoes for their children. Chileans are protesting because of a thousand abuses featured by the economic and political elites that have ruled the country over the last three decades, after the return to democracy, in 1990. People are demanding “dignity”, that is, systems that cover basic needs, with a decent health system, a decent pension system and qualified education, among other things. It is hoped that with the plebiscite for a new constitution new systems can be established for the society.

EM: The government has already pointed out signs for reforms, but the protests continue. Do you believe in a possible deadline for the protests?

JU: It doesn’t matter which reform this government establishes, nothing will satisfy the demands of the people. The president Sebastián Piñera, one of the richest men in Chile, represents the questionable economic elite. He is not the right man to solve this crisis. Basically, if he was up to accept the reforms claimed by the citizens and subsequently change the system, structurally speaking, he and other rich people would be affected and would have to give up the power. Therefore, the protests are going to continue until this president resigns or a “miracle” occurs and he decides to make the changes that the people are asking for.

EM: Do you believe that the riots were already predicted by all sides of it, government and students, unions and the social classes most affected by liberal policies? I mean, they all knew that one day it was going to happen?

JU: Personally I don’t believe people who say “we didn’t see it was coming” or “we didn’t know this could happen”. This social outburst was foreshadowed some years ago, but no one really took it seriously. We can agree that it took long for Chileans to show their dissatisfaction, that they were “asleep” and allowing these abuses for a long time. However, I would describe this as a ticking bomb that sooner or later was going to explode and the trigger was those 30 Pesos in the transport (the demonstrations started after the Chilean government has raised the price of public transport tickets).

EM: How do you face the fact of students now having migrated the protest to the intellectual part of the process? In this case, in Chile, you have to take a test to get into universities, and the students said that this year they will not take this test. What do you think about this and which can be the consequences of this act?

JU: Well, the first people that started doing something regarding the price of the public transport tickets were high school students. It’s the young people who started moving the country. And we could say that this social explosion was “agglutinating” because it binds up all the demands of the citizens: health, education, pensions etc. In the case of the education sector, young students are aware that the Prueba de Selección Universitaria (University Selection Test) is part of the bad Chilean education system. This test endorses social segmentation: while the richest have a better education through a private system, those with less income do not get high scores and have no options to study. In addition, they are forced to get into debt if they want to study. Therefore the problem is not the final test, but the education system that results in enormous differences through income levels. Regarding the actions taken by young people, unfortunately they could not manage to change anything by boycotting the test. Perhaps they managed to get people talking about it, but the underlying problems are rather structural in society. The fault is not the test itself, even though I don’t think it’s good either because it only measures knowledge and not skills.

EM: More liberal sectors have said that the situation in Chile could be even worse if liberal policies had not been launched in recent decades. In this case, these people want to say that Chile could be in an even worse financial situation. What do you think about that?

JU: Part of the society is asking for an overall change in the country’s economic system. I don’t think that’s possible. To me it seems that it is not arguable that Chile has grown through liberal policies in recent years. Meanwhile the wealth has mainly remained with the economic elite, as I mentioned earlier, and just a small percentage of that went to the rest of the society. Chile still has a neoliberal or capitalist system, whatever you want to call it. Nevertheless the country is not growing anymore. It is stagnated, though that meets the current financial situation in a global context. So it is not because the system in Chile is effective or not. Anyway the problems of the Chilean economy are different: it is not dynamic, it is an old-fashioned economy, in which the exploitation of raw materials such as copper, lithium, agriculture and wine are its main markets. If Chile is not capable of developing in terms of innovation, technology or industries, it does not matter what model it has: it will not grow economically. In modern times, it is also necessary to aim at a circular economy, with a focus on the environment. Chile is far away from this and it does happen precisely because of the country’s economic elite. Most of these people are concerned in accumulating more wealth for their personal well-being.

EM: In your point of view, what is the future of Chile and Latin America?

JU: It’s hard to answer this question. In Chile, I don’t see a possible short-term solution. The first thing the country should do is changing the constitution, which was idealized during the dictatorship. Otherwise the economic elite will continue to rule the country. But even if a new Magna Carta is written, there is still a long way to define which society the country wants to build, which pension system, which health system, which education system, among other important ones. In Latin America, I believe that we should focus our efforts on promoting policies that are aligned with the global context, that is, adopting a circular economy, concerned with the environment, and also fighting against the continent’s economic inequality. However, I do not imagine that this will happen soon, unfortunately.

Picture: Nelson Anguita, protestas Santiago, Flickr

Is this really the end of the Erasmus Programme in the United Kingdom?

By Gianluca Michieletto

It has been almost five years since my first taste of Erasmus experience in Brighton, United Kingdom. It was a crisp mid-September morning when I flew from “my” Venice to London Gatwick with one of the many flights that connect the two European cities. I was very excited and scared at the same time, trying to imagine how my life would change from that point on. The year in Brighton did not represent my first study-abroad experience, since I had already enjoyed several short language courses in Northern Ireland and England. However, this represented the first long-term experience away from my family and my country, and, for an average Italian youngster, it is never easy to leave your “mamma” and move abroad (I am sure that my Italian fellow students would agree with me on this). Yet, I could have never imagined that Erasmus changed myself and my life so much in such a positive way.

Even though it was only five years ago (2015), things have drastically changed: I was a degreeless 18-year-old boy, my English and life skills were the opposite of flawless, and Brexit had not happened yet. 

On January 9th, 2020, British MPs voted against the possibility of the United Kingdom to continue benefiting a full membership of the Erasmus programme after Brexit (344 to 254 votes). Proposed by the opposition, the “New Clause 10” would have in fact assured the participation of the United Kingdom also for the cycle 2021-2027.

Even though the government has denied the possibility to fully abandon the programme, the decision represents a crystal-clear stance against the EU. As reported by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in fact, different conservative MPs have argued that the decision was taken in order “not to have their hands tied in the next negotiates with the EU”.[1] For the moment, the government and the European Union claimed that funds for the upcoming year are secured and will be honoured, as well as the two-year scholarships. After the transition period, however, it is still not clear what is going to happen.

Yet, the United Kingdom would not represent the first country outside the Union to benefit of the Erasmus programme, since countries like Norway, Turkey and Iceland are called “programme members”’ and fully participate in the programme.[2] It must be mentioned, however, that the new British government’s plan aims at cutting all the old relationships with the EU, trying to maintain only economic ties. This currently leaves the UK with only one option: leaving the Erasmus+ Programme. Moreover, as the BBC reported, even though the United Kingdom wanted to renegotiate the terms and re-enter the Erasmus programme, it would not happen until the beginning of the next cycle,[3] meaning 2027.

Thus, there is a not-so-remote possibility that British universities would not benefit from the programme for almost a decade, consequently denying several thousands of students the possibility to enjoy this huge opportunity. At the same time, also students from other EU member states would have more difficulties applying to British universities compared to their previous “colleagues”, since the Prime Minister Boris Johnson will probably not be soft on immigration policies. Moreover, in the case of a “no-deal”, British universities would lose their appeal in the European university market, since European students would be forced to pay higher tuition fees. Indeed, the current agreement between the EU and Westminster “safeguards” member states’ students with a privileged status, thus paying the same tuition fees as British citizens.

On this line, at the beginning of 2019, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) claimed that EU students have been extremely important in British universities, accounting 5% and 8% respectively at the undergraduate and postgraduate level in 2017.[4] In the same year, moreover, it must be argued that 16.561 UK students enjoyed their semester or year abroad through Erasmus funds, while 31.727 students from other European countries studied in British universities.[5] Since then, the number of incoming and outgoing students have continuously increased.

The decision of the United Kingdom of not renewing the Erasmus+ agreements would deprive students of the possibility to live in another country, to integrate in another culture, to learn a new language, as well as meeting new people and experiencing unforgettable adventures. As the majority of Erasmus students argue, in fact, the Erasmus year represents the best year of their lives and a non-renewal would symbolize only a theft to future generations. Once again, as it occurred in the Brexit election, it is older generations, who never experienced such an opportunity, to decide for our (I also include myself) future.[6]

As already mentioned in the introduction, I consider my Erasmus year in Brighton one of the most important experiences of my life, since it somehow matured me and shaped who I am today. Erasmus is in fact not only responsible for the development of peculiar abilities needed in the university and work environment, but it is essential in the growth of personal skills and values. Indeed, what I did not tell you in the beginning is that the Erasmus experience enlightened my path of life. Some people could argue that it represents a stupid and naive sentence to say, but I am who I am today thanks to Erasmus and all its related experiences.

After my year abroad, in fact, my unconditional support for the European Union, its values and its possibilities, made me understand what I wanted to do after finishing my bachelor’s degree. In 2018, I was lucky enough to enrol in the Euroculture Programme, an Erasmus Mundus Master which focuses on European politics, culture and history. For those who may not know, Erasmus Mundus Masters are EU funded programmes, which give students the possibility to earn a double degree by studying in different countries. As for myself, I studied in Göttingen (Germany), Bilbao (Spain) and Indianapolis (USA).

After explaining my story and my points of view, I feel in the position to state that a possible agreement of the UK to leave the Erasmus Programme could only be considered catastrophic. Catastrophic, not as much for the United Kingdom and the European Union as political entities, but to their future students, who could not benefit from similar opportunities. However, while member states’ future students would continue to benefit from the programme by choosing other university destinations, British students would have fewer opportunities to study abroad, thus being sealed inside their own bubble.

Picture: Dunk, Banksy does Brexit (detail), Flickr

Sources:

Statista Research Department, “Brexit votes in the United Kingdom by age”, Statista, August 9, 2019. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/520954/brexit-votes-by-age/

Bieber, Hannah. “Brexit and the generation that was robbed”, The Euroculturer, October 13, 2019. Available at: https://euroculturer.eu/2019/10/13/brexit-and-the-generation-that-was-robbed/

Cosslett, Rhiannon Lucy. “Thanks to Erasmus programme, my small world grew big”, The Guardian, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/09/erasmus-programme-year-studying-europe

Adams, Richard. “UK ‘committed’ to maintaining Erasmus+ exchange scheme”, The Guardian, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jan/09/uk-committed-to-maintaining-erasmus-exchange-scheme

Tommasetta, Lara.”Brexit, il Regno Unito vota per abbandonare il programma Erasmus. Ma è davvero un addio?”, TPI News, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://www.tpi.it/esteri/brexit-regno-unito-addio-erasmus-20200109525875/

Guerrera, Antonello. “Brexit, Londra non conferma l’Erasmus: Eventuale accordo andrà rinegoziato”, La Repubblica, 9th January 2020. Available at: https://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2020/01/09/news/brexit_il_regno_unito_dice_addio_all_erasmus-245321403/

Reality Check Team, “Erasmus: What could happen to scheme after Brexit”, BBC News, 9th January 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/education-47293927

To have more information, look also at: https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/about/brexit_en

[1] Antonello Guerrera, “Brexit, Londra non conferma l’Erasmus: Eventuale accordo andrà rinegoziato”, La Repubblica, January 9,2020

[2] Reality Check Team, “Erasmus: What could happen to scheme after Brexit”, BBC News, January 9, 2020

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hannah Bieber, “Brexit and the generation that was robbed”, The Euroculturer, October 13, 2019

[5] Ibid.

[6] Statista Research Department, “Brexit votes in the United Kingdom by age”, Statista, August 9, 2019

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

By Vhiktoria Siva

Europe will always be defined by its colonial past in the same way that its former colonies will never be able to deny theirs. Even now, hundreds of years after Europe’s “golden period”, its effects still echo loud and clear in all aspects of life all over the globe, and any discourse with a colonial tenor remains a delicate topic for both sides. One would think that after all these years, we as a society would be so much better at addressing this matter, that we could finally talk about these things with sensitivity, but this is not the case at all. Colonialism is still the elephant in the room that everyone tries to skirt around whenever history is being discussed in a multicultural room.

It is a topic that requires a certain tenderness that only comes from the understanding that colonialism touched different countries in different ways, some more positively than others. The insensitivity swirling around colonial rhetoric only proves the majority’s extremely shallow understanding of it and that we should have stopped this ignorant cycle a long time ago.

The Amsterdam Museum’s decision to stop using the term “golden age” pertaining to the 17th century, undoubtedly caught the attention of the public. The confused discourse surrounding this renaming shows the unaddressed tension that manifests itself when it comes to the topic of colonialism and post-colonialism. The world is divided between those who commend the museum for the renaming, and those whose reaction ranges from disapproving to being outright upset. The Amsterdam Museum took to its website to address its audience with an official statement, calling its re-evaluation of the term an important step in the name of inclusivity that gave room to different perspectives and narratives of that time.

The recognition of untold colonial stories is indeed a good step towards the evolution of colonial discourses. However, a lot remains to be done. Empathy and sensitivity are values that should stand as the foundation of respectful interactions in society, but are lacking in present-day colonial discourse. Admittedly, perspectives that have persisted for generations are not easy to change. How can we even begin to alter the enduring negative attitude towards colonialism when it is so deeply rooted in culture, history, even xenophobia? This is a question which is hard to think about and even harder to answer, but we cannot simply ignore it, as we have done for years.

The fact that this question remains unanswered in the 21st century shows how terrifyingly good we are in repressing issues that do not touch us directly. The first step towards remedying the xenophobia and sense of entitlement, which define colonial discourse, must come from addressing the fact that they do exist and still have concrete and real life consequences for millions of people around the world. We as a global society must be conscious and active in identifying as well as correcting the mistakes of our past. To continue ignoring the insensitivity in the colonial discourse means continuing to see the world through a narrow lens. Silence, in this case, is nothing short of being compliant to the repression of colonial voices and the burying of hundreds of untold colonial stories.

It is time for all of us as a united society to see our own countries’ histories in their entirety. We must recognize the good that our past has brought us, but at the same time be aware of the bloodshed and oppression that must have taken place in order to get what we have now. Realizing that we are a part of a bigger world that is hurting is the first step towards addressing the imbalance in colonial rhetoric. To be humbled by the truth is not admitting to weakness, it is surrendering to reality with the hope and potential of becoming better in the future.

The wounds of colonialism still run deep. This is evident in the quality of colonial discourse that we have today. The insensitivity that defines the colonial rhetoric proves how the majority still has an extremely shallow understanding of colonialism in general. It remains to be a topic that requires a certain delicacy that only comes from the understanding that colonialism touched different countries in different ways, some more positively than others.

The uproar that surrounded the Amsterdam Museum’s renaming of the “golden period” proves how divided we still are as a society when it comes to this. Acknowledging the unspoken colonial narratives is indeed a good step forward, however, there is still a lot that remains to be done. We as a society must stop denying pressing issues that do not touch us tangibly. We must be conscious and active in correcting the mistakes of the past. It is way past the time we realised that we are part of a world that is hurting and in need of empathy and sensitivity.

Picture: Aidan Whiteley, Flickr

The avalanche of Erfurt

By Guilherme Becker

In the mountains of Thüringen, the lack of snow points to a mild winter. On the ground floor of its capital Erfurt, however, an avalanche has been spread and felt all over Germany. For the first time a far-right populist party has helped electing a governor. At first, it may not look so serious, but in Germany it has been considered a completely unexpected, surprising, and worrisome taboo breaking. A blast that is hurting the political spectrum nation-wide.

What a time to be in Erfurt, from a journalistic point of view. When I started my internship at Thüringen Allgemeine, I could not imagine that I would live in such a vivid and turbulent period. Not at all. As I am currently working for the biggest newspaper of the state, in its capital city, I would like to explain what went on and what might go on regarding the state parliament leader election, its effects and the great repercussion that led even chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) to respond directly from South Africa on February 6th.

Some weeks ago I spent the whole Friday (31.01) hanging out, watching sessions, interviews and keeping my eyes close to the work of the reporters at Thüringen Parliament. It is a kind of experience that fits really well into a journalist and Euroculture student’s life. I even got time for a joke when walking through the corridor reserved for politicians from far-right populist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland/Alternative for Germany), well known for its xenophobic, racist and anti-immigration policies. “Am I allowed to be here? You know, I am a foreigner…”, I asked a journalist. He laughed and promptly joked back: “Yes, true, but you have German blood… So don’t worry…” We all laughed.

The time for jokes ended soon after, precisely on Wednesday (05.02), when the election of the new Thüringen governor was about to happen. The predictions and expectations were all set for the reelection of leftist Bodo Ramelow (Die Linke). But then the most unlikely scenario led to the election of centrist-liberal candidate Thomas Kemmerich (FDP), at the last minute. Unexpectedly, instead of voting for their own candidate, AfD politicians decided to support Kemmerich to defeat the left. That is not the only problem: CDU (conservative right-wing) also supported Kemmerich, which means that two traditionally moderate parties made an unpredictable – if not unbelievable – “connection” with far-right extremists. A complete shock for Germany.

The impact was so huge that protests erupted – and keep happening – not only in Erfurt, but in many other cities of Germany. In the capital of Thüringen public transport was highly affected with delays not only on that Wednesday, but also on the following days given the demonstrations that followed the election.

Then on Thursday (06.02), only one day and 34 minutes after the election, the then newly-elected governor Kemmerich announced his resignation. On Monday (10.02) Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned the CDU leadership. Therefore, she will not run next year in the national election as a possible substitute for Merkel. Some days earlier, Merkel had fired Christian Hirte, then minister for former East German states and secretary of state for the economy and energy. The reason? He greeted Kemmerich’s election on Twitter. One avalanche after another.

But why? Why so much anger and outrage over a vote? Well, let’s start from the beginning.

Thüringen state parliament is made up of six different parties: Die Linke (29 seats), followed by AfD (22), CDU (Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel’s party, conservative right, 21 seats), SPD (Social Democratic Party, socialist left-wing, 8), Grüne (environmentalist left-wing, 5) and FDP (Liberal Democratic Party, liberal centre-right, also 5).

The governor election is indirect. Therefore it is necessary to have a majority through the seats to elect the governor – and then have a future majority on approval or rejection of projects and laws. National conservative and liberal centre-right headquarters parties, such as CDU and FDP, have always claimed and made clear that any “connection” – even informal alliances – with AfD was not allowed and should not happen at all. But it did happen. Usually AfD does not give and does not get any support to or from any party. This time, though, they decided to vote for FDP instead of voting for their own candidate. A completely unexpected political trick.

I see this scenario as a sign that two traditional parties, by accepting AfD support – even not being allowed to do that -, may be ignoring national premises and acting independently to come to power. The point is that the parties’ headquarters strongly condemned the election primarily arguing that Kemmerich should not have accepted the outcome of it. But he accepted, and only later on decided to resign after seeing the pressure and the protests coming from all sides. CDU’s more conservative wings have already flirted with the possibility of approaching AfD. For the most part, however, it has been avoided at all. Moreover, the result of this election might be a message that AfD is gradually getting closer to the “political game” and attempting to gain power under any circumstances.

The reason for the shock in Germany is obvious: parties, politicians and civil society from all political backgrounds abominate the possibility of the far-right approaching power. They voted for and elected politicians precisely to not do what they just have done. In their minds, it is something completely unacceptable which I definitely agree with. When traditional right-wing and centre-right parties (such as the CDU and the FDP) accept AfD’s support, the ideology fades away, and the subsequent message is that what really matters is to come to power. A great offense, so to say.

Another great concern is that this “connection” among these parties leads people to question and consequently disregard even more the traditional parties, which in the last elections have significantly lost votes to extremists. As Kemmerich resigns and a new election is blinking, maybe CDU, for example, will connect to Die Linke, which, in my point of view, can make the electorate migrate even more to the extremists, namely AfD. In other words, it all means that there might be a huge loss of confidence in traditional parties and a vote of confidence for extremists.

The rise of AfD in Thüringen might have come along through many reasons, such as a strong conservatism, but also from some trauma left by DDR, and some subsequent economic reasons. Estearn German states have never got as industrialized as their Western neighbours, for instance. A study launched two weeks ago, for example, pointed out that only 22% of Eastern Germans are completely satisfied with democracy. The number is almost half of the 40% that said being satisfied with it in former Western German states.

At the same time, I see Die Linke as the current majority more as a result of the so-called utilitarian vote, in order to avoid a majority for AfD, although the region remains a traditionally working-class region, what might have led part of the electorate to migrate to the extremes, be right or left.

I do not think that I need to explain the concepts and the political agenda preached by AfD. It is actually more than only conservative. It is racist and xenophobic. One need only to google Björn Höcke and will certainly soon realise what I am talking about.

In the end, what happened some days ago in Erfurt was actually a strong and unprecedented taboo breaking. Germans are aware of the weight of their own history. They know that it was in Thüringen that the country had the first state government with the involvement of the Nazis. Incidentally, it was also in February, 90 years ago, that Hitler’s party gained substantial power. In Erfurt. In Thüringen. That was the first taboo breaking that later led Europe to the ruins, and Germany to collapse. Hopefully a majority of people are not in the mood to repeat some obvious and terrible mistakes.

Picture: Links Unten Göttingen / Flickr

Leave no man behind: let’s talk about the fourth industrial revolution

By Jelmer Herms

It is probably a truism at this point, but we are not living the same way we did 20 years ago. Technology and innovation are changing our lives at a pace they have never really done before. CNBC News aptly put it in perspective like this: It took 75 years for 100 million people to adopt the telephone. The video game Pokémon GO reached that number of users in about one month.[1] The impact of technology is felt quicker and to a greater extent than ever before as a result of our globalized and interconnected world. But of course, more than just video games and telecommunications are developing at a rapid pace. Family Guy, at the end of its episode “The Peter Principal”, manages to point out in just a very short dialogue exchange how technology revolutionized the way we think about delivery services like Amazon, but also how hard it is to truly experience such change as remarkable or otherwise noteworthy:

Stewie: Oh, I bet he’s delivering those marmalade jars we ordered.

Brian: Doesn’t that feel like a million years ago? Yeah, we don’t need those anymore.

Stewie [To Delivery Guy]: Sorry, just send them back.

Brian: You can just do that?

Stewie: Oh, yeah, you can just refuse delivery.

Stewie: You’ve never done that?

Brian: I-I genuinely did not know you could do that.

Stewie: Well, you can. Anything you order. If you don’t sign for it, it has to go back. Everyone does it.

Stewie: Most of what America is now is just boxes going back and forth.[2]

As rapid innovation is becoming a new normal, it is also becoming a new kind of mundanity, and I think we should be wary of accepting the rapid pace of technological change as normal, even though you could make a strong case that almost nothing has changed in the ways that matter most. In fact, considering the quantity of global crises over the last years, I would expect nothing less than a sceptical view on our development, or the idea of a teleology of human progress. I agree that in most of the ways that matter, humans have not changed at all. Looking at the last 20 years or so, issues of social justice and socio-economic inequality remain, global terrorism has become more prevalent, man-made climate change is an unrelenting cause for distress, and civil war in the Middle East, famine in Africa, or the recent fires in the Amazon have traumatized, displaced or in the worst cases ravaged entire cultures. So of course, humans haven’t really changed as a species, but the technology we wield has. And this has had (and still can have into the future) undoubtedly positive effects as well.

Because over the last twenty years we have also, for better or for worse, connected billions of people to each other through the power of the internet, forging new transnational networks and alliances that have greatly contributed to the wellbeing of many across the planet. We now have entirely automated vehicles driving around, and they drive better than any human ever could. We have developed self-learning AI that can not only beat us at turn-based games like chess or checkers, but also at much more complex real time games, such as the classic RTS Starcraft II. [3] Computers can help us save lives and identify dangerous criminals, but they can also help us make entirely new forms of art, like this programme that writes (admittedly pretty bad) music by itself [4]. That is, in my view, nothing less than extraordinary: all of us here are alive in the period being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.[5]

But can we say that as active citizens, we are asking ourselves the right questions on how to deal with the fact that we are in the middle of an Industrial Revolution? Are we directing our attention to making sure we are investing time and effort into the technologies that could help us the most? Are we structurally modernizing our democracies, our cultures, and our discourse to adapt to this revolutionary time? I’m not always so sure. It seems to me that the public sphere is not particularly on board with this idea of an Industrial Revolution, except for when Apple comes out with the ‘revolutionary’ new iPhone, which features a marginally improved camera and some new software updates.

To me, it seems that the actual revolution of innovation is being led by an exploding technocratic billionaire class. And many within this small group of people are mostly concerned with keeping their customers satisfied. But I think there is a massive difference between designing a product for a consumer, and designing a tool for a democratic citizen. I think it is fair to say that, as one example, social media has not been designed with the idea of existing within the framework of an inclusive liberal democracy: Facebook has caused extreme views getting disproportionate attention, and led to rampant misinformation that swayed election results because of its click-based monetization model, which rewards the loudest and most controversial voices.

In those cases where we design technology for the broader public, we should think more carefully about who benefits from innovation and technological advances, and to make sure that we don’t create systems that favour groups of people by design. And let me just add that my problem is not that people are getting rich by developing new technologies. I am not trying be some kind of neo-Marxist, urging you to eliminate class struggle by killing the wealthy, or to destroy any of the processes driving our technological innovation.

What I see is a technical operational challenge to the capitalist economy. Both innovators and citizens could play a much more active role in driving solutions to what I see is the major issue of this moment: the challenge of economic inclusivity. The problem as I see it, is that less and less people can participate on equal terms in this labour market. Of course, some skills or educations will always be more desirable than other kinds depending on the market and the environment, and I see no real issue with that dynamic continuing into the future. But we are reaching a point where technology is so efficient and innovation has accelerated so much, that it is very likely there will eventually not be enough labour to perform for entire segments of populations. Think of not only “low-skilled” labour, even though they will be hit the hardest, but also middle management positions, doctors, or all kinds of support staff eventually being overtaken by automation and artificial intelligence. The issue of keeping people included in the labour market cuts across class lines, and I think it is not central enough to our understanding of national politics.

While some answers to this issue have been presented in politics, they have come only from across the Atlantic, in the US. The American Democrat Andrew Yang is running for President of the United States on a platform attempting to tackle exactly the issue of automation and the increasingly exclusive labour market, and he has gathered a surprising amount of bipartisan support. [6] But his chances of winning are still minimal compared to mainstream top dogs like Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or the guaranteed Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Here in Europe, I have not heard of any running national public official looking to address the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or even mentioning the issues I have talked about here (and I hope, of course, that anyone can prove me wrong on this: I don’t speak every European language). This, I think, speaks for the need for a change in perspective more than anything else.

If we want to manifest political change that strives for a more inclusive society not only in terms of social justice, but also in terms of economic stability and employment, then framing that discussion in an accessible and appropriate manner should be considered essential. By popularizing the idea of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, by making people think about our current moment not as mundane, but as extraordinary, we can help make people aware that the neoliberal logic of radical personal responsibility with regards to your employment can be successfully contested or suspended. It could help us reframe how we view unemployment and eliminate the stigma on it, which in turn could help us think in more positive terms about how to find people new jobs, if we even want to continue with striving towards full employment at all. Talking about a new Industrial Revolution can also help us kickstart a broader conversation about new and exciting technologies that we could feasibly incorporate into our societal structures. Finally, talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution as an explicit operational issue can help us become more willing to let go of the economic and political models of the past, and to instead embrace new and innovative technologies and models for organizing our society.

We need to do more than just reform: it’s about time we revolutionize.

Picture: joshsdh, Flickr

Sources:
[1] ‘’What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?’’ CNBC News. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9rZOa3CUC8

[2] Family Guy S15E18, The Peter Principal.
https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=family-guy&episode=s15e18

[3] RTS, Meaning Real-Time Strategy. For more on Starcraft II AI, see: https://deepmind.com/blog/article/alphastar-mastering-real-time-strategy-game-starcraft-ii

[4] http://computoser.com/

[5] https://www.weforum.org/about/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-by-klaus-schwab

[6] https://www.yang2020.com/

I got racially harassed, and I am okay with it. Please don’t be like me.

By Alit Wedhantara

It was a sunny midday afternoon. I had just arrived home from the Intensive Programme in Olomouc, in Czech Republic, which happened on the last week of June 2019 and where I met new people from almost all over the world, other students of the Euroculture programme like myself. 

Having just come back, I was still in the process of settling down again in Groningen. I was casually riding my bike home from the nearest Albert Heijn, where I grabbed my favourite lunch combo menu: a pack of blue-packaged paprika Ribbel chips and a warm Frikandelbroodje.

Back then, I did not know that there was a backdoor to the housing complex I lived in and I could just ride straight through, so I went the long way around, turning right. I exited the supermarket complex to the roundabout, turning left to my ex-mental-hospital-turned-student-accommodation. As I was about to make a turn left on the roundabout, I did what any cultured cyclist would do: I signalled with my left hand.

However, after realizing I actually still needed to go straight, I made another hand signal with my right hand to signify I would be staying on the road instead. It was in this moment of confusion that I became aware of the existence of a small city car, an orange Peugeot 104. As I finished the roundabout and moved on, the driver of the orange Peugeot edged a bit to my left, shouted at me, laughed and drove off. I was still in awe, a bit in shock, as my mind processed what the driver had just said to me in Dutch. There were two blonde guys in that car, which I assume were both Dutch. Thinking back on it now, I believe they shouted something like: “Dikke piet!”

At that moment, I thought: “Ah… maybe some mad incels” or “some very angry far-right people”. I’m not even sure if they knew I could understand them. I arrived home and went straight to my room. I put my groceries on the table and sat down, but then I began to think about the situation that I had just been through. In that very moment in time, I realized: “Oh… they yelled racial slurs at me. Did I just get racially harassed?” I personally never would have thought or imagined, in a million years, that in the year 2019 in Western Europe someone would still yell out-of-date racial slur at me. I don’t really care about the body shaming part, calling me fat (dikke), or anything regarding my plus-size, but it is a bit problematic when you categorize me as a “piet”. Not cool. 

That’s when this issue became one of racial discrimination, crossing the racial border/boundaries. If you don’t know about the context of this slur, consider googling “Piet Netherlands” the next time you are connected to the world wide web. Did this specific incident change my mind for the worse about the Netherlands? Not even slightly. I still love Europe, and I still want to be here. But the incident really made me think about all kinds of possibilities. Possibilities about how to react when you are racially discriminated. In this article, I think I just want to try to match and link my experience of what happened to me with my general experience of colonialism.

Historically and ethnically, growing up as an Indonesian, I, myself, always studied the colonial period religiously, especially during my formative years in elementary until senior high school. We as Indonesians are consistently being brainwashed into thinking that we were colonized by the Netherlands for over 200 years. We know who the first Dutch person to arrive in the mainland East Indies was. We know who the governor-general was that build, quite possibly, the most important road in the island of Java. But if one looks deeply enough,then you would notice that around half of those two hundred years, we were actually colonized by a multi-industrial company, not a ‘single’ nation the size of our current capital, Jakarta. This is a narrative that no one dared to until recently, but it does force us to think about the cultural influence our colonizers had on us.

My opinion on this is that the Indonesians never bore the burden of that history as much as many people like to say. As we grew up, we tended to think that white Westerners were rich and educated people, and we valued their human being above that of ‘our own people.’: We thought they were higher in social caste or in the hierarchy than most of us. They are the expats. They could enjoy our full hospitality, politeness, and courteousness. After all, their ‘superior’ currency and better rates only made them seem even higher above us than they already were. A lot of Indonesians tended to think of the Westerners as some kind of economic benefit to them. We sometimes think they are better because they utilized us to enrich themselves (even though they say in their ethische politiek manifesto that it was also about enriching us). It’s a bit of a colonialist cliché, but that feeling of dependency was probably invented by the Dutch.

All of this might seem like it was totally beside the point of my original story, but I don’t think it is. Because this history is why I like to think that what happened to me was somehow  my fault: that maybe as a fat, dark-skinned Asian, I should not get a proper education in Europe. Heck! Maybe my appearance in public is a pollution of the pure-skin white European ‘them’.

But most importantly, it is not Western Europeans that have to feel bad or bear the guilt of our shared, bloody past. They seem to think that clearly it is not an important matter. Because, after all, I am just some worthless, third world scum that threatens the existence of their hegemonic white world, the one they want to live in. Stealing their jobs. Turning their country into a ‘shithole’ like mine. Should I stand up? Should I shout back at them ? Should I take my revenge and hunt them, shoot them in the face, or stab them in public? I think that the best possible answer for me is no.

Maybe it is a deficiency in their healthy body that made them think differently. I should let them live. I’m not going to rationalize their act, because it is not rational. I can only rationalize their inability to think. After all, even though it might seem like another cliché, love is the answer. Spread love, not hate. Important lesson learned: I should be more careful on roundabouts. Long live free speech!

Disclaimers:

P.S.: Please take this article with a hint of salt (~and pepper). After all, that’s why Europeans colonized the Eastern world, right? Finally, you can put those ingredients to use!

P.P.S.: When I say Europeans, them, their, Western Europeans, or you, I am specifically directing myself towards the (possibly) male-like figures riding the orange Peugeot 104 that racially discriminated me several months ago. I am not talking about the entire community.

P.P.P.S.: Oh, and more recently on October 25th, 2019, when I was walking past Albert Heijn Gedempte Zuiderdiep with friends of mine, we were getting shouted at again. It was a drunk figure with a masculine voice yelling “brownie!”. We personally took it as a compliment! Obviously not racist at all.

Picture: Garry Knight, Flickr