Migration: The freedom and death of bare life

Hannah Arendt once spoke of the phenomenon of mass refugee migration in the wake of the first world war as a testimony to the limits of any politics of human rights.  Stripped of nationality, stateless, the refugee migrant embodies the bare human that is the conceptual bearer of human rights.  And yet no one is more exposed to the violence of the State than such a human being.

The migrant is first and foremost a rebel against the border bound reign of states and capital.  Refusing to accept the ambient misery of global capitalism that would condemn her/him to unrelenting exploitation, the migrant escapes, flees towards the centres of capital, refusing passive oppression.  But in so transgressing the reigning order, the migrant also becomes exposed to every arbitrary act of violence that capital permits at its margins.  The migrant, radically free is equally radically expendable without consequence.  Product of a violent primitive accumulation of wealth in peripheral territories, victim of unrestrained exploitation as “illegal” labour in the central territories, physically destroyable without penalty, the migrant is the role towards which we all move, forcefully.  But in this very role perhaps lies the possibility of a freedom and equality beyond capitalism.

We share below two reflections on the recent deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean.  The first, from infoaut.org (21/04/2015), the second from libcom.org  (22/04/2015).

The bare life that drowned in the Mediterranean Sea

In the aftermath of the shipwreck that cost almost a thousand lives off the Sicilian coast, the only voices to be heard are those of a political class that exploits, misleads and howls in an indecently. Gentle racists lambast coarse racists, democrats study technical solutions to keep the “humanitarian crisis” out of sight and out of mind, intellectual defenders of legality call for moral rallies in the face of the barbarity produced by their own laws.

True horror has the strength to annihilate the capacity of expression of who suffers from its impact. It is a relation with grief that leaves us speechless and makes it impossible for us to contextualise an event. The political sphere sounds immediately obscene and false, and the only human reaction seems that of pure empathy, which expands the dimension of the massacre to one of tragedy. Respect for the victims contrasts with the oblivion of those responsible.

The foundation of the State is in the capacity of the sovereign power to kill without committing murder. In this way the massacre of April 19 is a radically political one. At the base of modern democracy there is not the citizen, but man, who, reduced to a bare life, as such, can be killed without consequences. Many mainstream commentators, the same ones who invite Salvini to daily grunts on TV, declare themselves to be shocked by the sickening comments that cheer for more sunken rafts. To use the interpretation of racism in order to qualify a position that simply puts into words the dirty secret at the foundation of our “civilization” is, without a doubt, too reductive. We live in a world that makes the migrant “a thing” beyond the sphere of human – and that therefore, as such, can or even must be killed. We reason about what happens off the Italian coast as an episode that doesn’t represent an aberration of the European experience. It is a massacre that displays the true nature of Western power that, in these times of generalized chaos, increasingly shows itself in its harshness: a system of domination that makes death its starting and finishing point.

Episodes of this kind never open up spaces for progressive politics. On the contrary, they regularly are the basis of new “humanitarian wars”, in order to further dump the costs of frontier management (even by outsourcing the asylum procedures directly to Northern Africa) and to further militarise the borders. Today, the technical means that allow the rapid and safe crossing of a sea such as the Mediterranean do exist. There are however laws that attempt to prevent this banal act, thereby turning it into a mortal endeavour. Without a doubt, it is not the people smugglers – against whom Matteo Renzi cast his anathema on March 20 – who daily invent and implement them. They are the assassins. Exactly those very people who are taking the floor today to comment on the massacre, from the supervisor who, with his body, defends an imaginary line to the politician that approves measures to prevent the legitimate freedom of movement.

The political debate is now about a naval blockade and greater controls or raids on the coasts against the “slave masters”. Everyone agrees about the need of restoring a framework of order and legality in order to prevent further “tragedies”, and subtly make the issue shift: from how to save migrants to how to condemn them to stay where they are. The two-pronged nature of the law makes it a tool that establishes a violence while preserving another. Regardless which concrete measures Europe, summoned by Matteo Renzi, will implement, they will inevitably have two effects: on the one hand, that of establishing a new violence through the militarization of borders; on the other hand, that of preserving the violence experienced by humanity fleeing from wars and poverty, definitively preventing it from reaching the European coasts.


Border controls continue to kill

Late on Saturday, a migrant vessel capsised 60 miles north of Libya. The death toll for that one incident could be upwards of 800, over half of the figure of 1,500 deaths estimated in the past year alone – itself 50 times higher than in the same period during 2014. This is just the latest stark illustration of the human cost of border controls.

This tragic occurrence comes on the heels of a column by Katie Hopkins in The S*n suggesting that migrant vessels coming to Britain be forcibly sunk as a deterrent to the “cockroaches” trying to get here. Hopkins, of course, is famous solely because she is entirely without redeeming features to the point that it’s a surprise no story has yet emerged of her punching a crying orphan child at their parents’ funeral. Which is why she went on to write: “No, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”

But even if Hopkins is beyond the pale, to the point of making us realise that the putrid shit-rag she writes for can actually go lower in our collective estimations, the problem is that she’s not an anomaly.

This because, no matter how uniquely vile she may seem, she is just the latest incarnation of the “politically incorrect” pundit who’s given a national media platform to have extremely reactionary opinions for money. And on immigration, no matter how many people distance themselves from Hopkins’ comments, it remains received wisdom that borders need to be defended, and whether or not a few tears are shed for the bodies floating in the water, they’re still the inevitable result of that.

Outrage over Katie Hopkins’ comments will have made a lot of people forget the Labour Party’s infamous ‘racist mug.’ Unlike Hopkins, Labour will be able to put their views on immigration into practice in government. Indeed, they already have, since the last Labour government built a vast network of immigration prisons and oversaw a regime of abuse and death in detention. This includes neglect and violence towards children in detention.

The same regime continued after Labour left office, of course. The promised ‘end’ to child detention never happened and the same injustices prevail. But this is because the current handling of immigration isn’t a party policy, but the prevailing consensus of the ruling class.

Nor is this consensus limited to the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour. A Thousand Flowers points out how the SNP, supposed bulwark against the Westminster consensus, played into the same narrative when Nicola Sturgeon ‘started talking about wanting to get rid of, “people with no right to be here,” calling for “strong controls” on immigration and declined to give a straight answer as to whether there were too many immigrants in the country.’

The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition’s sister party No2EU also takes an anti-immigrant stance in its pursuit of populist workerism. As Anticapitalist Initiative explains:

Anticapitalist Initiative wrote:

Perhaps the most worrying section of the No2EU website is the one on “Yes to workers’ rights,” which starts with the argument that “The social dumping of exploited foreign workers in Britain is being carried out under EU rules demanding the “free movement of capital, goods, services and labour” within the EU.”This is a cynical and deliberately confusing attack on what is actually one of the main progressive aspects of EU law, namely the free movement of workers. For internationalists, the only possible criticism of this is the fact that it creates a “fortress Europe”, a bloc within which workers can move freely, while those from outside Europe find it increasingly difficult to enter.

No2EU have actually picked up on this, saying “The so-called ‘free movement’ of labour is part of the development of a deeply racist Fortress Europe which would increasingly exclude people from outside the EU and undermine wages and working conditions inside the bloc.”

But, perversely, rather than arguing for an opening of the borders to those from outside Europe, their answer is…. excluding European workers from Britain by abolishing the free movement of labour inside the EU.

Of course, Sturgeon and No2EU alike will distance themselves from the likes of Katie Hopkins, UKIP, and anyone else who wants desperate people fleeing persecution to be machine gunned in open waters. They deplore racism and merely want a ‘sensible’ debate about a ‘humane’ system. But how can a system built on the state’s power to dictate who has the right to live where ever be humane?

Immigration controls in Britain were born with the 1905 Aliens Act. This was aimed at Jewish refugees fleeing anti-semitism in Eastern Europe and Russia and created in response to the agitation of the proto-fascist British Brothers League. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, directed against black people, was declared by Blackshirts leader Oswald Moseley as the “first success” for fascist activity in this country. Immigration controls were built upon racism.

Today, the ideological driving force behind such controls is not racial but economic. Without a doubt, racist sentiments are still a key element in the propaganda campaign used to reinforce their existence as a necessary imposition upon freedom of movement. However, the concerns of state and corporate planners with regards migration controls are capital-based.

Whilst capital has complete freedom of movement, people don’t. We are restricted based on our “economic worth” to the ruling class, divided into citizens and non-citizens based upon our usefulness to profit margins. One element of the working class is played off against the other on the basis of status as “indigenous” or “immigrants” by the very people we should be uniting against. This is the true value of migration controls – it allows entrenched power to strengthen its position by playing upon racist sentiments and uses nationalism to protect against the internationalism necessary to take on those whose policies are at the real root of our problems.

But, even amongst people who accept all of the above arguments, there remains one – supposedly – inescapable reality; mass migration. If it were not for borders and border controls, then we would be “swamped” by the sheer number of people who are migrating from their homes towards the west every day. We would be overcrowded, fighting for resources, drowning in crime, our infrastructure would collapse, and so on.

However, such an argument assumes that those who advocate an end to the border regime simply want to scrap border controls and then let a chaotic free-for-all happen. This isn’t true at all.

Mass migration has absolutely nothing to do with how “tough” or “soft” border controls may be. Mass migration is a product of the unjust and often violent military and economic policies that displace people on a massive scale. On important example is the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) that came about in the aftermath or World War II has essentially kept the colonial system alive through the establishment of “free trade areas” – essentially meaning that we have pried open the third world to our plunder. It’s something we’ve always done, but now there’s international legislation barring them from using protectionist tariffs to prop-up their economies. This restriction enacted specifically to prevent the third world using precisely the measures that the developed world used to become developed.

This disparity is the driving force behind mass migration, and responsibility for it lies primarily in western hands. The United States and Great Britain have spent half a century imposing market fundamentalism through unaccountable bodies like the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, and legislation like GATT. This is not to mention military interventions, funding, arming, and mobilising of terrorist groups, propping up third-world dictators and pumping aid to them in order to keep corporate profits high.

The only way to end mass migration, then, is to end precisely these injustices. This isn’t an easy task, but rather one that requires complete social revolution to change the way the world is run.

While we remain a long way from that, people are still dying on a regular basis – in immigrant prisons and in open water. Fighting against such naked injustice is absolutely integral, from challenging racist immigration narratives and the very urge to determine people’s worth by where they’re from and how they got here to giving practical aid to those taking action to help migrants and resist immigration controls.

The case against borders is solid. We need to keep fighting for it to be heard.


We close with a “manifesto” elaborated by a group within No borders uk in 2012, with which we largely concur …

A No Borders manifesto

A manifesto written by some people active in the No Borders UK network. Please note that this manifesto has not been endorsed by everyone in the network. It is simply meant to stimulate thinking and discussion.

1. Freedom of movement is not a right; it is a real living force. Despite all the obstacles that states put in people’s way — all the barriers of barbed wire, money, laws, ID cards, surveillance and so on — millions cross borders every day. For every migrant stopped or deported, many more get through and stay, whether legally or clandestinely. Don’t overestimate the strength of the state and its borders. Don’t underestimate the strength of everyday resistance.

2. In the 19th century, militants fighting against slavery in the US created an ‘underground railroad’ that smuggled many thousand runaway slaves to safety, as well as enabling acts of sabotage and rebellion. In the 20th century, the term was used again by the anti-Nazi resistance in Europe. Can No Borders become a 21st century underground railroad across Europe and beyond?

3. The most successful and inspiring No Borders work has been just about this: creating strong networks to support free movement across Europe’s borders. This is the infrastructure of a growing movement of resistance: contacts, information, resources, meeting points, public drop-ins, safe houses, and so on. A pool of formal and informal connections, a web of solidarity, working on both public and clandestine levels.

4. People manage to move, live, and evade state control because they are part of communities and networks. Migration happens because of millions of connections between millions of people. Our No Borders networks are one small part of this. Yet, as a movement, we can play an active role in bringing such connections together across national and cultural boundaries. Our struggle is one and the same.

5. People move for many different reasons. Many of the causes of global migration can be traced back to the West’s imperial and capitalist ventures: western-manufactured weapons and armed conflicts, wars of aggression in pursuit of oil and other natural resources, repressive regimes backed by Western governments, climate change and land grabs, and so on. But this is not the whole story. We shouldn’t overemphasise the role of western powers and fall into the trap of seeing people who migrate as helpless victims. People have always traveled in search of better living conditions, or simply to pursue their dreams and desires.

6. Modern states try to turn movement into a right that is granted or denied according to economic and political power. Elites and ‘first world’ citizens with purchasing power can travel and settle where they want, while the poor are controlled and criminalised. Some may be let through because they are deemed to be useful to the economy, or because they are classed as ‘genuine refugees’. Categories like refugee, asylum seeker, economic migrant and illegal immigrant are used to divide and control. This is why we use the term ‘migrant’ for all.

7. There are many fronts to fight on against this rotten economic and political system. We do not want to make No Borders some kind of model or metaphor for every fight against domination and repression. We are drawn to this struggle for our own reasons and out of our own passions and histories – for example, many of us are migrants or the children of migrants. However, there are some specific reasons why we think free movement is right at the heart of struggles in Europe at this moment.

7.1. Migrants from poor countries are the first line of attack for retrenching European governments and economies in a time of crisis. With limited rights and no visibility, migrants are often the first workers to lose their jobs when the recession bites; the first to be targeted by increased repression and new surveillance technologies; the first to be
blamed and scapegoated for capitalism’s crises; and the first to be dispensed with when their labour is no longer needed.

7.2. But migrants are often also the first to resist, and to develop alternative infrastructures outside the reach of the state. In 17th century England, travelling workers and beggars thrown off their land by the enclosures started early revolutionary movements like the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters. In the 19th century, anarchism grew up among dispossessed migrant communities in Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Chicago or the East End of London. In the 20th century, the anti-Nazi resistance in France was begun by exiles from Spain and Eastern Europe. The precariousness of migrant groups means they would always need to develop new ways of organising in order to survive. The loss of old ties and certainties encourages new ways of thinking and acting.

7.3. Migrants may be the first under attack, but they won’t be the last. The conditions faced by clandestine migrants show what we can all look forward to in austerity Europe: mass unemployment, less employment rights and more exploitation, less welfare, repression more brutal and naked. This is what the crisis really means: the so-called first world turning into a third world, with widespread poverty and a stark class divide. The old compromise of the welfare state, which kept workers in the West quiet by guaranteeing basic living standards, is crumbling. As illusions and disguises are shattered, we see the return of open confrontation between the elites and the rest of us.

8. No Borders has its roots in anarchism. There is plenty to criticise in the recent history of European anarchism. Too often anarchists have retreated into their own identity, forming a subculture and cutting themselves off from the wider struggles around them. But there are also many positive things we should retain, including the Do It Yourself (DIY)
culture of recent decades. Social centres, activist kitchens, independent media, housing and workers’ co-operatives, secure communication networks and other DIY projects are valuable resources – so long as we recognise that, like migration, activism is not an identity but something we do. For example, No Borders squats in Calais and in big cities across Europe are not lifestyle choices but essential shelters and resource points. And as the safety blanket of European welfare systems is pulled away, more and more of us will have to find new ways to do things ourselves. All our know-how on the streets, at the barricades, in practical support and mobility, will become precious. The point is to make our skills and resources part of wider movements of resistance.

9. No Borders needs to be an open and diverse movement. Many different people, with and without papers, have contributions to make. To make this a reality we have to tackle the borders within our movement too. We need to constantly address different forms of privilege, whether based on people’s legal status, language, education, gender, race, class, or simply people’s other commitments and abilities to face different levels of risk.

10. This is not a game. We are fed up with shit actions. We need to distance ourselves from the symbolic stunt activism that has come to dominate many activist scenes. Stunt activism seeks to grab the attention of the mainstream media and, through them, to win over so-called public opinion. It can make sense to pay attention to the media, but not to make them our main focus. We need to scrap the idea – pushed by the state and media corporations – that there is one unified, homogeneous mass of ‘normal people’ called the public. There is no such public; only lots of different people and groups with different, often conflicting, interests and desires. And the mainstream media don’t speak for any such public anyway – they speak for the media corporations and advertisers who set the agenda.

11. We therefore propose a few principles for No Borders activities:

11.1. Number one: our actions should be direct actions in the true sense. They should have direct material outcomes, even if these are only small – if we stop one person being deported, if one migration prisoner manages to escape, if one person gets a safe roof over their heads, if we stop one eviction, win one asylum case, help one person trapped in the system to find strength to get through the days, win one workplace struggle, cause some real damage to a company’s profits, this is a material gain. When we do meaningless symbolic actions that fail to achieve anything, we only get discouraged, while the system gets stronger. When we achieve direct successes, these reverberate in our communities, encouraging those already taking part and inspiring others to get involved, thereby strengthening the network as a whole.

11.2. Number two: every action should also have a broader aim: to build the infrastructure of resistance and rebellion. This means developing and strengthening our networks, making new alliances, acquiring useful skills and material resources. The audience of our actions is not ‘public opinion’; it is all those we want fighting beside us. Our aim is not to convince the majority of the European population of the No Borders argument. The people we most need to work with already know very well what borders mean.

11.3. Number three: pick tactics strategically. We should think carefully, and seriously, about our strengths and weaknesses. We should be clear about what our actions can actually achieve, and where we need to improve and be better prepared. Dogmas, fantasies, and ingrained habits should be questioned all the time. We must acknowledge the valuable work to be done by people who, for various reasons, cannot take on certain risks. But we must also recognise that, if our movement is to begin to really challenge the border regime, many of us will face serious risks and far more serious repression. Our defence against repression and fear is to create a strong culture of solidarity.

12. Radical grassroots movements are the groundwork for the new world we carry in our hearts. At first they start as essential support lines for escape and small-scale resistance, and for the small hidden acts of counter-attack and sabotage that are available to the weak. At the same time, resistance and struggle are not separate from the rest of life – these networks and communities are the same ones in which we live, learn, play, work, invent and build alternative social and political structures. As a movement’s strength grows, and as crises expose weaknesses in its enemies, these networks become the infrastructure for open rebellion. So the 19th century underground railroad was the basis for slave revolts during the US civil war. The underground railroad of the 1940s broke out into partisan uprisings. What new forms might struggle take in the 21st century? We don’t know, but let’s find out.


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