Humanitarian Ethics – Berlin Colloquium on Contemporary History

From Rights to Favour? Didier Fassin on the ‘Moral Economy of Asylum in Contemporary Society’

Some notes by Johannes Paulmann (IEG, Mainz)

“Refugees Welcome” – Portraits of refugees and volunteers as part of a rally, 3rd Oct. 2015, Vienna, Mariahilferstraße, photo: © Bwag/Commons, CCBY-SA-4.0

The anthropologist and sociologist Didier Fassin (Princeton) opened the 21st Berlin Colloquium on Contemporary History at the Einstein Forum, Potsdam, on 3 December 2015. In his public lecture Fassin analysed the recent shift in representing individual refugees and the legitimacy of their claims – a shift, as he explained, from a right to asylum to granting asylum as a favour. How are we to explain the accompanying changes in recognition rates and in the manner of accepting refugees?

Fassin sees the convergent logics of two developments at play. On the one side, the political economy regarding immigration changed during the 1970s. Until then workers from abroad were invited and welcomed into an expanding west European economy. With the onset of economic crisis and the slowing down of growth, immigrants were regarded as superfluous in the labour market. However, this perspective is not a sufficient explanation. It took also, on the other side, a change in terms of moral economy, the logic of which shifted from a matter of compassion and admiration for those persecuted to suspicion and hostility towards immigrants during the 1990s when the Cold War ended, the control of borders within the EU was abolished, far right movements rose, and the social integration of refugees or migrants became a matter of public debate.

Fassin adapts here historian E.P. Thompson’s idea of the ‘moral economy’ but neither regards it as a code particular to a group, such as rural workers during the industrial revolution, nor understands it as something long lasting and stable. He rather uses the notion of a moral economy to describe the production, circulation and appropriation of values and affects within the realm of specific problems, in his case migrants wishing to enter a country. The moral economy regarding ‘refugees’ has changed several times during the period since the Second World War. While I would disagree with the historical periodization of the affects and the way Fassin links them to particular groups, for example concentration camp survivors, Latin American resistance fighters or civil war refugees from the former Yugoslavia, the elements he detects certainly were central to the evolving moral economy: commiseration, respect, admiration, compassion, and mistrust.

Fassin’s argument rests mainly on France, the participant observation of magistrates in asylum courts, and the analysis of medical certificates. Studies of other countries and comparative scholarship as well as the analysis of an enlarged range of actors, institutions and societal spheres involved could fruitfully build on his approach – be they in contemporary or historical research. Following his lead, we might move the scholarly debate from criticism to a critique of configurations which helps us to grasp how the political, administrative mechanics and the affective and cognitive frames interact in the (de)naturalizing, (de)politicizing, and (de)historicizing of immigrant refugees or other precarious lives to use Fassin’s own words.

The event organised by the Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung in co-operation with the Einstein Forum, Potsdam, was convened by Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (University of California, Berkeley) and Tim B. Müller (Hamburg Institute for Social Research). It started the Berlin Colloquium on ‘Humanitarian Ethics’. Remarkably enough, Fassin did not use the term ‘humanitarianism’ once in his talk as if to express thereby that its use in regard to refugees denies the individual a right to asylum. Humanitarianism thus, by implication, acquired an almost pejorative connotation similarly to the one it had in many quarters during the nineteenth century when what today are regarded humanitarian agents claimed to act in the name of humanity – a term which could encompass rights or favours and certainly carried with it various hierarchies and differentiations of race, gender, culture, and power.

As if to make up for Fassin’s conscious omission, the term ‘humanitarianism’ was used widely and in a variety of meanings during the following workshop on 4 – 5 December. Participants discussed ‘Genealogies of Humanitarianism’, the connections between ‘Humanitarianism, Capitalism and the Global Market’, and the shift ‘From Rights to Empathy’. The Berlin Colloquium’s congenial setting of an open debate without formal presentations brought together historians and anthropologists also including sociologist, philosophers and legal scholars.

Although the gathering did not come up with a version of humanitarian ethics for the contemporary world – which had indeed not been the aim – the discussions enlightened the conundrum of humanitarianism and the ever-shifting moral, political and affective economies of this particular mode of governing precarious lives. From a long-term perspective, configurations may be expected to change again: when empathy with other (human) beings was transformed into human rights during the late eighteenth century and when, as is claimed, rights have been transformed into empathy since the 1990s, who is to predict how and when values and affects will change again? What role scholarship has in this is a question which could be addressed at some future meeting – and needs also to be answered by individual historians, anthropologists and other social scientists for themselves.


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