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Segregation and the Egalitarian Utopia

Segregation and the Egalitarian Utopia

No. 1, Sep.-Oct. 2016 » UNCOVERstory

We live in troubled and contradictory times. A seemingly commonplace affirmation, but not everyone can easily understand this first sentence. For most intellectuals, this idea seems triumphant, dramatic and perfectly appropriate for thought. For the rest of us, however, it is a simple fact. Why? Because the common man has other priorities.

We face a paradox. Humanity is supposedly trying to implement democracy, liberalism and human rights in as many societies as possible, all of them if this could be done, and as quickly as possible. At the same time, unjust choices – which eschew equality and undermine unity - are made for more and more people as a form of bargain. And this does not stop here - fragmentation and fault lines get deeper and deeper both inside and outside societies, especially at their point of contact.

The tension between is and ought to be

Human rights apply to all people and are the fruit of intellect striving for a life as fair as possible. They are espoused by (inter)national policy makers who are the intellectual leaders who reached the top of the respective hierarchies, and the effects of their actions are felt by everybody (the common people, as we called them previously).

Since everybody’s wellbeing is espoused as a universal desire, as well as equal opportunities and other such universal values, then how does it happen that we often encounter a tense climate marked by uncertainty, discrimination, no integration and, most often, segregation? These aspects have been dominant throughout history. Most often, when two societies met, tensions appeared. Realpolitik has always prevailed, as specialists in international relations would state. The battle for domination ended in the victory of the stronger and the subjugation, annihilation or absorption of the weaker. This contact has very often strengthened the internal cohesion of each community, and when one of them was conquered, its members have worked as a block against the dominators. The block behaviour involved strengthening identity through language, traditions, customs, habits etc. Even when there was not an intent for conquest and domination, there was a strong identification between individuals and the initial group. Thus, ethnic and racial enclaves arose; the enclaves based on income were formed in the same way. It rarely happened otherwise. That is why integration/ assimilation are not the likely end results of the present migrations and, which are the cause of frequent tensions within societies. There have been overwhelming examples, stretching form Roman antiquity, to the great geographical discoveries, ending with the latest waves of immigrants from the Greater Middle East (as the decision-makers across the Atlantic like to call them, since former President George Bush Jr.) that emphasize this eternal truth.

Changing paradigms

There was a time when egalitarianism and equality between individuals really represented a universal reality, when segregation – understood as separation – did not even exist in the mind and spirit of individuals. And that was because, a few thousand years ago, wars were little known by isolated tribes consisting of no more than dozens or hundreds of individuals. Anthropologists even talk about an ethic of egalitarianism. It still exists, sporadically, within several tribes of hunter-gatherers in Amazonia, Africa, Southeastern Asia, Australia and Oceania. The most striking example of egalitarianism within hunter-gatherer communities is the right to food, or equality in relation to food. Whether or not they had taken part in hunting, or if they had been fortunate to find something to eat, food was distributed so that each member could have something to eat. Nobody had the right to tell someone else what to do. Everyone could make his/her own decisions; even parents had no right to command their children. Last but not least, community decisions were taken by consensus, therefore there was no leader.

But what caused the change that made most of the well-known historical events happen exactly the opposite of what had been expected? Why do the other values – those we mentioned at the beginning of the text – prevail today? The beginning of change represented a shift from the hunter-gatherer phase to that of farmer. Since the primitive tribes were able to base their diet on corn, so they were able to cultivate plants and also to domesticate animals, structures inside tribes started to appear. Once the food could be provided, there were surpluses, which were able to support occupations that had not been possible before because the tribesmen were in constant movement in search of food. Agriculture and domestication implicitly led to settlement. And henceforth, events moved towards more and more complex community structures that gradually started to provide leaders, “administrators” of food, responding to a need to manage food better, which led to early scribes and record keeper (among those who were managing food), primitive craftsmen etc. What is important to note about this transitional stage, as geographer Jared Diamond appreciates, is the fact that the emergence of leaders gave birth to injustice, meaning that those who had the power could benefit from food and other goods discretionarily and could enjoy a separate status. Then, the tribes that were capable of producing more food became stronger, increased in numbers to where they could support an “army” and, moreover, began to expand and dominate other tribes. Here is the initial paradigm of societal structure that led to the almost total suppression of egalitarianism. Once this pattern was established, it was repeated throughout history.

A universal vocation?

Today, mankind yearns for equality as a human right, mediated by democracy and liberalism. However, reality highlights the opposite, that states are differently developed, some of them being rich (even very rich), others being poorer (often knowing dramatic poverty). These same states are structured according to social classes into ethnic and racial groups, and when something unexpected appears (refugees) or new dynamics (flows of economic migrants), the community attitude of the states affected by refugees and economic immigrants becomes turbulent, with contradictory policies. Liberal democracies, with their rich economies, either agree or do not agree to consider human rights. Immigrants and refugees may require the support of the rich countries, but the latter are not always willing to offer it because they are afraid of an alien social element. A cohesive block-type attitude of rejection towards the foreigners may develop within communities of the targeted country that is relatively more developed than the home state of the refugees and migrants. The foreigners, when moving to a new host state, have the natural tendency of living according to their home values. This is rarely acceptable to the hosts, even when their political leaders maintain and uphold a contrary stance. This is true for Germany, which is willing to receive immigrants according to its political leadership, but not according to the common German people. There are, as it is well known, situations when the entire society, together with its state leaders, refuses to accept economic immigrants and refugees, such as Great Britain, Poland, Hungary etc.

In developed countries life is much better and people may delude themselves that they have equal opportunities in relation to everyday life. We say they “delude themselves” because, as Simion Mehedinți said, there is no equality in nature, not even among the leaves of the same tree. Equality is regarded as the ability of most people to lead as comfortable a life as possible. In the countries affected by conflicts, poverty and oppressive systems of government, people are almost afraid to pronounce the word “equality” since there is an overwhelming avalanche of injustice and problems and their equality is one of unrelenting poverty and insecurity. The contrast with the West could not be clearer.

Thus, two different interests and attitudes collide. Some people want to emigrate while others do not want this to happen. Some are eager to escape the troubled life and lead a better life elsewhere while others fiercely oppose this. Synergies arise between these attitudes and fear. The fear that the newcomer can create problems. The fear that the refugees and economic immigrants will not want to integrate and adopt the host model. The fear that there may be terrorist acts and riots. The cases of tensions and social conflicts between native and alien are not few, even 2-3 generations later, when the descendants of the immigrants had been born on the host’s soil and have never known anything else. If anything, they are increased. France’s situation, stretching back decades, is a testament to this. The segregation of peoples in the USA according to class distinctions that invariably mimic racial groups, or the apartheid in South Africa are other cases that fall within the same logic. There are smouldering dislikes between native British of Protestant origin and Muslim immigrants from former colonies. These cases implanted fear in the minds of the natives of the Western states, which then spread to those in Central and Eastern Europe. Therefore there are efforts to keep immigrants from the Greater Middle East away from Europe.

Interesting times


Obviously, conspiracy, populism and many other issues that are rejected by any civilized society appear as a result of all these events and information. It is likely, as the media often states, that members of terrorist groups such as ISIS (or Daesh) have infiltrated the refugees and economic immigrants. It is also possible that the recent increase in terrorist attacks is related to recent waves of immigrants from Greater Middle East. The fact is that - as it is shown by the evidence gathered after the recent terrorist attacks - those who caused them were related, were radicalized or were sympathizers of terrorist groups. The same also happened, both in Paris and Brussels, and in the German cities or in some other European regions. The current situation - the events related to immigrants arriving in Europe –may also be caused by the way these immigrants are treated (see the refugee camp in Calais, France), the lack of political consensus on the share of immigrants in the EU and the emergence of populists trying to win the election riding on fears of the newcomers.

There are many issues involved here and it is therefore quite difficult to understand and explain the situation in Europe and its relationship with the Greater Middle East. However, the central vein of the things presented here is related to the fact that we live, here in Europe, interesting times, both socially and from a geopolitical perspective. Large waves of refugees will gradually change the social structure of the old continent. Again, France (through its national football team) gives us a clue as to what Europe might represent at a certain moment. Not integrating newcomers, once this issue is politically decided within the EU, may create problems and tensions that may reach the level of internal conflict. And if it comes here, then multiculturalism will show its limits once again. Some sociologists are already discussing this aspect and that is why it is believed that receiving large numbers of immigrants is bad policy. On the other hand, NGO activists see things from a different perspective.

In lieu of a conclusion, I will state the personal observation that the more peaceful, tolerant, inclined to equal opportunities and social rights we claim to be, the harder it has been to deliver worthwhile results on the basis of these values. While refugees and economic immigrants seek a quieter life in the West, the West will either receive them as second-class inhabitants or will not receive them at all. Migrants come seeking equality of opportunity in developed countries but, once they are established in their new location, they realize that they are socially segregated by the cumulative forces of their own cultural values ​​and the resulting marginalization within host societies. In other words, the desired equality is nothing but a utopia, because the result takes the form of social enclaves. The fear of what is foreign and unknown to us will probably never leave us, regardless of whatever levels of development we may achieve.



The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)
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