Hegel, Steele, and the Refugee Crisis

Affect and ontological security

In the summer of 2015, at the height of the European refugee crisis, UK associate to the UNHCR Laura Padoan was surprised “to be sent on emergency mission” to “a holiday island during peak tourist season”. On the quaint Greek island of Lesbos, she writes, “two worlds are colliding” as, suddenly, “holidaymakers are confronted with the fallout from bloody civil wars as sunrise brings boatloads of refugees to the beaches of Europe” (Padoan 2015).

Indeed, two worlds collide in the refugee crisis. And the puzzle goes beyond the material level: The European Union is not only confronted with the question of how to fairly distribute responsibility, as most clearly evident in the fierce controversies surrounding the Dublin III regulation, but also with an immaterial concern with the consequences of the crisis for regional and national self-identity.

I argue that this latter question is perhaps more important than one might assume, and that it plays an especially aggravated role in a post-9/11 security discourse that somewhat seems to have attenuated the humanitarian perspective. The relation between European self and refugee Other is, in many instances of public discourse, guided by an underlying sense of insecurity — the imagination of a ‘jihadi influx’ offers a particularly powerful tool of political imagination. A debate (the refugee debate) that usually tends to revolve around moral obligations has thus assumed the shape of an intangible security question.

In the following, I discuss and illustrate Brent Steele’s theory of ontological security at the example of the European refugee crisis. I relate this to the Hegelian concept of inherent contradiction in order to ultimately argue that an acknowledgement of subjective rationalities could enhance political responses to the crisis.

Ontological security

A particularly enlightening theoretical perspective for an approach to this matter is Steele’s notion of ontological security, which refers to a sense of self-identity, the consistency of which is of primary concern to the nation-state. In subtle resemblance of the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, Steele posits that states seek to maintain “consistent self- concepts” (Steele 2008, 3). These concepts are restored when shame threatens self-identity, which Steele importantly locates internal to the state, in juxtaposition to externally constituted guilt, which is produced for instance when international norms are transgressed.

Steele’s concept aims to fill a conceptual gap in realist International Relations (IR) which puts strategic, self-interested state behaviour in diametrical opposition to ethically motivated action. If these were indeed related in mutual exclusion, Steele wonders, why then would states ever feel compelled to pursue non-strategic courses of action? He asks: “How are moral actions rational?” (Steele 2008, 2). His answer points at the ultimate relativity of any moral pursuit, in that state behaviour may seem irrational, but nevertheless can be subjectively rational — it makes sense in relation to self.

Steele derives much of his theory from the work by Anthony Giddens on structuration and self-identity. Giddens, an obvious source of inspiration to constructivists like Wendt (1999) who reject thinking in dichotomous pairs, starts out with dissolving the structure- agency dualism by means of mutual constitution: Structure shapes agency, which in turn adds to the nature of said structure (Giddens 1979). In a similar fashion does Steele claim that the incentive for moral action is already within states’ identities themselves, and therefore not merely external. This is an important deviation from mainstream theories which tend to emphasise environmental factors.

Inherent contradiction and synthesis

This introspective gesture echoes, in a way, some of the philosophical contentions brought forward by Hegel. The concept of inherent contradiction is an important but underemphasised aspect of Hegelian dialectics. These move from abstraction to negative, and culminate in the concrete, which is a merging of opposites (sublation), producing what Fichte (not, as popularly assumed, Hegel) coined synthesis. In this essay I will focus on synthesis as the moment of transformation in which not yet becomes not anymore. Thus, in a movement that is very similar to both Giddens’ structuration and Steele’s ontology, a contradiction is contained within its opposite pole: Sublation absorbs Other into self. Or, as Hegel claims in his Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences: “If we let somewhat and another, the elements of determinate Being (then-and-there) fall asunder, the result is that some becomes other, and this other is itself a somewhat” (Hegel 1874, 150; emphasis added).

Hegel relates to Giddens and Steele in a profound way. All three scholars have in common an intention to dissolve dichotomising tendencies — Hegel literally transforms contradiction into one; Giddens dissolves an old dispute with the hybrid of structuration; and Steele, most recently, locates the “driving force” of “physical existence and social needs” in “the securing of self-identity through time” (Steele 2008, 2), acknowledging the roles of both exteriority and interiority.

This compromise, as also agreed to by social constructivists, is in fact not actually compromising: It emphasises one aspect without sacrificing the other — it puts them on par with one another by responding to ‘either/or’ with ‘both’. This is important when considering ontological security in the case of the European refugee crisis, as it should remind oneself that by assigning emotion or affect a particular role in rational decision-making one does not need to disregard rationality, but instead point at the subjective particulars of such rationality.

Self and Other in the European refugee crisis

The subjective particulars on each level of the European refugee crisis — that is, national discourses within Europe, international security discourse post-9/11, as well as refugee discourse — all constitute platforms of contrasting ethical accounts. I will outline three ways in which they interfere with ontological security.

First, on the European level, security of self often refers to the security of ‘the West’ as an overarching category. The self-narrative of this entity is based, as we know, on core values such as secularism or liberalism. If we take these two pillars, we might see their consistency under potential threat by the refugee crisis. Secularism is suddenly in question to the extent that a large part of the European community seeks to distinguish itself from the predominantly Muslim refugee population by suddenly referring to a common European ‘Christian heritage’. One striking example in this regard is Poland, where the prospect of welcoming Muslim refugees meets very vivid resentment — despite yawning non-familiarity with Muslim others in the demographic makeup of Poland. Polish sociologist Górak- Sosnowska quotes a declared Islam-critic who argues that it was simply “forward-looking” to be anti-Islam (Górak-Sosnowska 2016, 203).

Liberalism, in turn, is similarly feared to erode in confrontation with the Other whose moral concepts we imagine to be incompatible with our own understanding of freedom. French provincial authorities responded to Muslim women wearing the so-called ‘Burkini’ to the beach with prohibition. In defence of ‘liberal society’, large segments in the public debate went on to argue that someone whose looks go against French self-identity as liberal should be prevented from displaying such anti-liberal looks. This contradiction is fascinating because it showcases how the encounter between Western self and non-Western Other produces an incorporation of both — the transformation of the totality, in Hegelian terms, entails internal negation. Becoming here most clearly consists of ceasing-to-be and coming-to-be. One can expect encounters such as the ‘Burkini’-debate to be decisive for the restoration of European ontological security.

Second, these regional and national discourses are inextricably embedded in a broader international security discourse that has significantly shifted after 9/11. Counter-terrorist foreign policies in and beyond the West since 9/11 are perhaps most striking examples of subjective rationality (tinged by affective appeal), yet they also play into the narrative of the refugee crisis: Humanitarian concerns, although still very strong elements of the debate, are now weighed against security concerns which emphasise the potential influx of terrorists on the refugee route. This plays a considerable role in the way by which the European self relates to the non-European Other — a relationship of contrast, particularly exacerbated and picked up on since the recent terrorist attacks in Europe. Beyond the material threat this poses, ontological security is at stake through a sudden uncertainty about the self as potential victim.

Third, although often excluded from the debate, refugees themselves have their own narratives that express a similar struggle between self-identity and its sudden disruption through the crisis of their self-status. In light of a profound lack of information that prevails in public debate, my thoughts on this important aspect are bound to remain somewhat speculative. Different from the European self, the category ‘refugee’ implies not only an ontological disruption of identity, but a more profound existential threat of self as such. The fragile-liminal status of a refugee is, in a way, a Hegelian Becoming in and of itself: A refugee is ‘not a citizen’ — not anymore in her or his country of origin, and not yet in her or his country of destination. Consequently, the stark inequality in the bargaining situation between refugee-self and host-Other expresses a power imbalance that significantly conditions and mediates the self-Other encounter.

Affective synthesis

All three parties to this bargain attempt to restore their own sense of self — the refugee crisis is a challenge. I argue that the post-9/11 security discourse in particular has introduced a dynamic that exacerbates the divergence between European self and refugee Other, its interference simultaneously weakening the humanitarian discourse. This is a significant impediment to an adequate rapprochement of both sides. With the complementary arguments by Steele and Hegel I come to the conclusion that an acknowledgement of subjective rationalities can enhance political responses to this crisis.

If states were merely interested in survival, why would there be a humanitarian concern with the refugee crisis at all? Considering the securing of self-identity in the terms of Steele illuminates this question: States are interested in an internally consistent self-narrative, and not responding to the refugee crisis would break, for instance, the Western narrative of human rights. The controversies over secularism and liberalism discussed above are symptomatic of this struggle for consistency.

In addition, the process is intersected by an overarching post-9/11 security discourse. The frequent suspicion of terrorists unlawfully entering European territory is perhaps an instance of what Hegel describes in his dictum “Evil resides in the very gaze which perceives Evil all around itself” (Hegel/Kainz 1994). Not the European discourse itself is evil, but rather it contains its own negative by giving the threat a name in the first place. I argue that it is precisely this non-recognition of the quality of the gaze that stands in the way of properly bringing about synthesis.

After all, moral concern with the refugee crisis is not a purely rational matter (in a positivist sense), but nevertheless subjectively rational in that it forms part of an internally consistent narrative. Acknowledging the role of subjective rationality, I propose, would allow for moving closer to a mutual rapprochement between European self and refugee Other. With regard to the power imbalance between self and Other, particular responsibility to act upon this lies within European self-spheres rather than with refugees themselves. Material security concerns with immediate threats could be supplemented with a more prudent attitude that avoids viewing humanitarian concerns through this same security lens and instead attempts to understand other rationality rather than discarding such as irrationality.


This essay was submitted in 2016 as part of an undergraduate course in International Relations at University College Utrecht, The Netherlands.

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