by Jonathan Lee
There is a mendacious yet persistent fantasy that Roma could be saved from the horrors of racism and discrimination if only they weren’t so poor. It is the conservative idea that the free market can cure racism, that racism is purely a product of economic disparity, and that if only Roma were more economically engaged, most of the nasty symptoms of antigypsyism would simply fall away.
The theory goes something like this:
The Romani people are not only Europe’s largest ethnic minority, they are also the youngest, with an average age of just 25 years compared to 42 years for the general European population. While birth rates decline and populations age across Europe, Roma are the fastest growing ethnic group in many European countries.
Throughout the continent the number of working age people is decreasing, the number of retirement age people is increasing, and Europe is facing a fast approaching labour shortage crisis. Such demographic shifts will be felt by the diminishing working population who must take up the burden of providing for an increasingly aging society.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Europe is on average three times higher for Roma than non-Roma who live nearby. Rather than waste generations of Romani potential, states should capitalise on the young Romani population as an asset to help alleviate the looming labour crisis. This would have the added benefit of ensuring the inclusion of Roma in wider society. Many of the factors leading to Romani exclusion; poor housing, segregation, lack of education, would be solved by measures to include Roma in the labour force. Institutional racism would lessen and the exacerbating symptoms of poverty which reinforce antigypsyism would disappear, meaning racism against Roma would be largely relegated from public life.
Don’t fall for it.
The theory that racism can be destroyed through free market forces has never been successfully shown to actually work.
Such an ideology misunderstands the cause and effect of antigypsyism in Europe. Roma are marginalised and impoverished because of antigypsyism, not the other way around. Whilst it is true that poor housing, poverty, and unemployment (and their associated social issues) do contribute to prejudice against Roma, these things are not the root cause of that prejudice. Simply put: Gadje society despises Roma because it is in its culture to do so. It is a historical constant of European societies, one that has grown within them, and which has only become more and more culturally cemented with the passing of the centuries.
Gadje society despises Roma because it is in its culture to do so.
Not only does the market cures all thesis not actually work, it can be quite cynical and sinister in its assumptions. For instance, the reframing of Roma as an untapped economic asset assumes that in order to get decision makers to provide for the needs of large numbers of their citizens, those people must be cast in terms of lost capital. For every Romani child who falls through the cracks there is a corresponding loss of productivity and societal income, rather than a million individual tragedies occurring every day for generations of human beings.
The second uncomfortable part of this idea is the way it views Roma as a rainy day investment in finances and intellectual resources. Roma are seen as a down payment which will pay off in the long run when there is a labour crisis. To be clear, we are talking about a manual labour crisis here; we can assume there will still be plenty of consultancy jobs going. Though it is not explicit, you get the distinct feeling from this line of thinking that Roma are expected to occupy positions in the physical labour and service sectors, and even then only to plug the gap.
Don’t get me wrong, for many of the most excluded Roma in Europe such jobs are completely unattainable right now, and for many would be an absolute dream. But, whilst there is no shame in doing any job, few people would say they had dreamt of one day becoming a cleaner or a road worker when they grew up. If the height of ambition from this proposal is that people of Romani ethnicity could become worker automatons toiling to keep the wheels of capitalism turning, whilst ‘Europeans’ live in relative ease, then it is not ‘Roma inclusion’ we are talking about – it is exploitation.
There is also a difference between jobs which are beneficial for Roma, and jobs which are useful for authorities. Hungary’s public works programme employs many Roma. However this system is purely designed to artificially increase employment rates at the expense of welfare, for the purpose of political rhetoric. It promises neither integration nor a future for Roma, and puts Romani families at the mercy of corrupt politicians and officials from their municipality who wield outsized power over their lives through public work. Programmes like these which have no long-term goals other than to keep Roma working (and off welfare) have little benefit for Roma inclusion or wider society.
The belief that employment initiatives will erase antigypsyism doesn’t account for the outright refusal of employers to give Roma jobs, even at the expense of their own business. It doesn’t account for the institutional racism in the education system which still denies Roma their right to an equal, integrated education. It doesn’t imagine that customers would knowingly, or even unconsciously, boycott companies which have a visibly Romani character. And it assumes that labour unions would never discriminate against Romani workers.
Aside from these glaring problems, the theory ignores the social and economic advancement of some Roma into middle class sectors which has in fact already occurred. It is clear that there are, and have been for some time, a number of educated, qualified Roma who have the skills to access the middle class job market. However, their presence has not torn down the structures of economic and institutional racism which neoliberals predicted. Despite their economic progress, there is still a lack of Roma in big business, middle management roles, and political positions. This is obviously not down to an insufficient talent pool, but a consequence of a rigged system which perpetuates antigypsyism and denies Roma opportunities.
Despite their economic progress, there is still a lack of Roma in big business, middle management roles, and political positions.
The promotion of Roma economically does not remove societal prejudice against them. In fact, it can be argued that in reality free market capitalism creates structural racism rather than limits it. According to Marxist theory, racism is a feature and product of the market capitalist system. Wherever you have a free, deregulated market with a large capitalist class there will always be inequality by design. The division of that inequality is usually at the expense of ethnic minorities. In relation to Roma unemployment, capitalism by its very nature cannot sustain full employment for any period of time. The existing prejudices and institutional racism which exists in society ensures that those who are economically excluded are generally members of minority groups, in this case the Roma.
The holy tenet of neoliberal thinking says that your most powerful way of participating as a citizen in our society is first as a consumer. It dictates that the market is self regulating, that laissez-faire economics rather than welfare will result in greater rights and freedoms for the individual, regardless of their ethnicity. In this particular instance it says that the fate of Roma inclusion should be placed in the hands of the private sector, rather than the responsibility lying with a centrally governed state. But states really shouldn’t be absolved from their lack of provision for integrated social housing, clean water, and decent education to Romani citizens. This market cures all approach to Romani inclusion is nothing more than a neoliberal pipedream which is a dangerous step backwards on the path to equality for Romani people in Europe.
The Norwich Radical is non-profit and run by volunteers. All funds raised help cover the maintenance costs of our website, as well as contributing towards future projects and events. Please consider making a small contribution to fund a better media future.